At first, it seems like a scene from a Hollywood sci-fi thriller. A computer-generated monster—a virus—clamps down on a bacterium, eats away at its surface, and implants its genes. The genes will force the bacterium to produce more viruses, so many that eventually it bursts to bits, and the viruses float away in search of more victims.
It is actually a mere 45-second movie, a detailed view of a microbial competition that can both create and combat disease. Drawing on X-ray studies and electron micrographs, Purdue University biologist Michael Rossmann and colleagues spent five years painstakingly constructing a detailed computer model of a bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria. Their rendition (available for download at http://seyet.com/t4phage/) shows proteins of the virus, specifically the T4 bacteriophage, working together like an intricate, rigid set of gears and levers to conquer the common bacterium Escherichia coli. It is common viral behavior; viruses that cause human diseases such as AIDS and influenza operate in much the same way. So far the movie has been a smashing success. “We’ve had thousands of hits on the Web site,” says Rossman, “and a lot of inquiries from scientists studying how viruses work.”