3D Animation Captures Viral Infection in Action
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
With the summer holiday season now in full swing, the blog will also swing into its annual August series. For most of the month, I will share with you just a small sampling of the colorful videos and snapshots of life captured in a select few of the hundreds of NIH-supported research labs around the country.
To get us started, let’s turn to the study of viruses. Researchers now can generate vast amounts of data relatively quickly on a virus of interest. But data are often displayed as numbers or two-dimensional digital images on a computer screen. For most virologists, it’s extremely helpful to see a virus and its data streaming in three dimensions. To do so, they turn to a technological tool that we all know so well: animation.
This research animation features the chikungunya virus, a sometimes debilitating, mosquito-borne pathogen transmitted mainly in developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The animation illustrates large amounts of research data to show how the chikungunya virus infects our cells and uses its specialized machinery to release its genetic material into the cell and seed future infections. Let’s take a look.
In the opening seconds, you see how receptor binding glycoproteins (light blue), which are proteins with a carbohydrate attached on the viral surface, dock with protein receptors (yellow) on a host cell. At five seconds, the virus is drawn inside the cell. The change in the color of the chikungunya particle shows that it’s coated in a vesicle, which helps the virus make its way unhindered through the cytoplasm.
At 10 seconds, the virus then enters an endosome, ubiquitous bubble-like compartments that transport material from outside the cell into the cytosol, the fluid part of the cytoplasm. Once inside the endosome, the acidic environment makes other glycoproteins (red, blue, yellow) on the viral surface change shape and become more flexible and dynamic. These glycoproteins serve as machinery that enables them to reach out and grab onto the surrounding endosome membrane, which ultimately will be fused with the virus’s own membrane.
As more of those fusion glycoproteins grab on, fold back on themselves, and form into hairpin-like shapes, they pull the membranes together. The animation illustrates not only the changes in protein organization, but the resulting effects on the integrity of the membrane structures as this dynamic process proceeds. At 53 seconds, the viral protein shell, or capsid (green), which contains the virus’ genetic instructions, is released back out into the cell where it will ultimately go on to make more virus.
This remarkable animation comes from Margot Riggi and Janet Iwasa, experts in visualizing biology at the University of Utah’s Animation Lab, Salt Lake City. Their data source was researcher Kelly Lee, University of Washington, Seattle, who collaborated closely with Riggi and Iwasa on this project. The final product was considered so outstanding that it took the top prize for short videos in the 2022 BioArt Awards competition, sponsored by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).
The Lee lab uses various research methods to understand the specific shape-shifting changes that chikungunya and other viruses perform as they invade and infect cells. One of the lab’s key visual tools is cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM), specifically cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET). Cryto-ET enables complex 3D structures, including the intermediate state of biological reactions, to be captured and imaged in remarkably fine detail.
In a study in the journal Nature Communications  last year, Lee’s team used cryo-ET to reveal how the chikungunya virus invades and delivers its genetic cargo into human cells to initiate a new infection. While Lee’s cryo-ET data revealed stages of the virus entry process and fine structural details of changes to the virus as it enters a cell and starts an infection, it still represented a series of snapshots with missing steps in between. So, Lee’s lab teamed up with The Animation Lab to help beautifully fill in the gaps.
Visualizing chikungunya and similar viruses in action not only makes for informative animations, it helps researchers discover better potential targets to intervene in this process. This basic research continues to make progress, and so do ongoing efforts to develop a chikungunya vaccine  and specific treatments that would help give millions of people relief from the aches, pains, and rashes associated with this still-untreatable infection.
 Visualization of conformational changes and membrane remodeling leading to genome delivery by viral class-II fusion machinery. Mangala Prasad V, Blijleven JS, Smit JM, Lee KK. Nat Commun. 2022 Aug 15;13(1):4772. doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-32431-9. PMID: 35970990; PMCID: PMC9378758.
 Experimental chikungunya vaccine is safe and well-tolerated in early trial, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases news release, April 27, 2020.
Chikungunya Virus (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)
Global Arbovirus Initiative (World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland)
The Animation Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)
Video: Janet Iwasa (TED Speaker)
Lee Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)
BioArt Awards (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Rockville, MD)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases