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A Close-up of COVID-19 in Lung Cells

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SARS-CoV-2 infected lung cells
Credit: Ehre Lab, UNC School of Medicine

If you or a loved one have come down with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, you know it often takes hold in the respiratory system. This image offers a striking example of exactly what happens to cells in the human airway when this coronavirus infects them.

This colorized scanning electron microscope (SEM) image shows SARS-CoV-2-infected human lung cells (purple) covered in hair-like cilia (blue). Those cilia line the inner surface of the airways and help to clear mucus (yellow-green) containing dust and other debris from the lungs. Emerging from the surface of those infected airway cells are many thousands of coronavirus particles (red).

This dramatic image, published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes from the lab of pediatric pulmonologist Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehre and team study mucus and how its properties change in cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and various other conditions that affect the lungs. These days, they’re also focusing their attention on SARS-CoV-2 and potentially new ways to block viral entry into cells of the human airway.

As part of that effort, she and her colleagues captured this snapshot of SARS-CoV-2 viruses exiting from lung cells in a lab dish. They first cultured cells from the lining of a human airway, then inoculated them with the virus. Ninety-six hours later, this is what they saw in greyscale. The vivid colors were added later by UNC medical student Cameron Morrison.

The image illustrates the astoundingly large number of viral particles that can be produced and released from infected human cells. Ehre notes that in a lab dish containing about a million human cells, they’ve witnessed the virus explode from about 1,000 particles to about 10 million in just a couple of days.

The dramatic increase in viral particles helps to explain how COVID-19 spreads so easily from the lungs to other parts of the body and—all too often—on to other individuals, especially in crowded, indoor places where people aren’t able to keep their distance. Hopefully, images like this one will help to inspire more of us this winter to avoid the crowds (especially indoors), wear masks, and wash our hands frequently.


[1] SARS-CoV-2 infection of airway cells. Ehre C. NEJM. 2020 Sep 3;383(10):969.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Camille Ehre (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

How Mucus Tames Microbes

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Scanning EM of mucus
Credit: Katharina Ribbeck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge

Most of us think of mucus as little more than slimy and somewhat yucky stuff that’s easily ignored until you come down with a cold like the one I just had. But, when it comes to our health, there’s much more to mucus than you might think.

Mucus covers the moist surfaces of the human body, including the eyes, nostrils, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. In fact, the average person makes more than a liter of mucus each day! It houses trillions of microbes and serves as a first line of defense against the subset of those microorganisms that cause infections. For these reasons, NIH-funded researchers, led by Katharina Ribbeck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, are out to gain a greater understanding of the biology of healthy mucus—and then possibly use that knowledge to develop new therapeutics.

Ribbeck’s team used a scanning electron microscope to take the image of mucus you see above. You’ll notice right away that mucus doesn’t look like simple slime at all. In fact, if you could zoom into this complex web, you’d discover it’s made up of mucin proteins and glycans, which are sugar molecules that resemble bottle brushes.

Ribbeck and her colleagues recently discovered that the glycans in healthy mucus play a long-overlooked role in “taming” bacteria that might make us ill [1]. This work builds on their previous findings that mucus interferes with bacterial behavior, preventing these bugs from attaching to surfaces and communicating with each other [2].

In their new study, published in Nature Microbiology, Ribbeck, lead author Kelsey Wheeler, and their colleagues studied mucus and its interactions with Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This bacterium is a common cause of serious lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis or compromised immune systems.

The researchers found that in the presence of glycans, P. aeruginosa was rendered less harmful and infectious. The bacteria also produced fewer toxins. The findings show that it isn’t just that microbes get trapped in a tangled web within mucus, but rather that glycans have a special ability to moderate the bugs’ behavior. The researchers also have evidence of similar interactions between mucus and other microorganisms, such as those responsible for yeast infections.

The new study highlights an intriguing strategy to tame, rather than kill, bacteria to manage infections. In fact, Ribbeck views mucus and its glycans as a therapeutic gold mine. She hopes to apply what she’s learned to develop artificial mucus as an anti-microbial therapeutic for use inside and outside the body. Not bad for a substance that you might have thought was nothing more than slimy stuff.


[1] Mucin glycans attenuate the virulence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa in infection. Wheeler KM, Cárcamo-Oyarce G, Turner BS, Dellos-Nolan S, Co JY, Lehoux S, Cummings RD, Wozniak DJ, Ribbeck K. Nat Microbiol. 2019 Oct 14.

[2] Mucins trigger dispersal of Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms. Co JY, Cárcamo-Oyarce, Billings N, Wheeler KM, Grindy SC, Holten-Andersen N, Ribbeck K. NPJ Biofilms Microbiomes. 2018 Oct 10;4:23.


Cystic Fibrosis (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Video: Chemistry in Action—Katharina Ribbeck (YouTube)

Katharina Ribbeck (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases