Wouter Roos and Gijs Wuite, respectively FOM researcher and FOM workgroup leader at VU University Amsterdam, discuss recent developments in the area of 'physical virology' in the journal Nature Physics. This new and rapidly growing discipline studies viruses, which can be viewed as 'natural nanoparticles', from a physics perspective. Roos and Wuite provide an overview of the latest fundamental insights and sketch a picture of the possible medicinal applications, such as viral transport of specific substances to cells.
In the review article, the researchers discuss how viruses can spontaneously form a protein sphere around their own DNA. This process occurs without an external energy source and provides new insights into how nanostructures can be made with as little energy as possible. Roos and Wuite also discuss the mechanical structure of viruses using, for example, the experiments that are being carried out in their own lab at VU University Amsterdam.
Viruses are too small to observe with a light microscope, but with the help of a tactile microscope the particles can still be rendered visible. Such a microscope feels the surface just like the needle of a record player gliding over the surface of a record. This technology not only makes it possible to 'see' viruses but also to study the material properties of the particles. The particles are literally squeezed until they break open. These measurements provide insight into the exact mechanical properties of the particles.
Besides increasing our fundamental knowledge about the physics of natural nanoparticles such as viruses, these experiments also provide opportunities for the development of artificial nanocontainers for the transport of specific substances to cells. This could be used in medicine to specifically manipulate certain cells in order to cure diseases.
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