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See the Zika virus as you’ve never seen it before

As scientists work to unravel the mysteries of Zika, a scientific visualization firm has created a realistic 3D model of the mosquito-borne virus that lets you see it up close and extremely personally.

The engrossing images come courtesy of Visual Science, a Moscow-based studio that was previously recognized by Science Magazine for its illustration of the human immunodeficiency virus.

Though the structure of the particle hasn’t been fully studied, illustrators were able to fill in the blanks by combining knowledge of related viruses, such as Dengue, with sophisticated computer modeling techniques, said Ivan Konstantinov, the project’s author and supervisor.

The firm may update its models when further crystallography or electron microscopy studies on Zika or Dengue are done, he added.

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The images are part of the group’s ongoing Viral Park project, which Konstantinov described as “a graphical review of the known scientific data about the structure of the most widespread or dangerous human viruses.”

Full coverage: Zika virus outbreak

Below is an illustration of a mature Zika virus particle after it has replicated inside a human host cell (visit Visual Science’s website for the full interactive tour). The model depicts the virus’ RNA in blue and material taken from its host in gray. The Zika virus, like influenza and HIV, captures cell membrane material from its host during the replication process.

The Zika virus
A cross-section of the Zika virus shows its RNA (in blue) at the center of the particle.
(Visual Science)

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The Zika virus

A close-up of the Zika cross-section.

(Visual Science)

The virus’ RNA, which contains its genetic code, is show in deep blue. The green shows core proteins, called protein capsids. These enclose the RNA, helping to stabilize and organize it.

The Zika virus

Parts of the Zika virus’ RNA (blue) and capsid proteins (green) that stabilize the RNA.

(Visual Science)

The cell membrane, made with fats from the host cell, is seen in light gray. The material comes from the host cell’s inner membrane, called the endoplasmic reticulum, where the virus is assembled.

The Zika virus
The lipid membrane of the viral particle (shown in gray) is taken from the host cell. Viral surface proteins are incorporated in it.
(Visual Science)
The Zika virus
(Visual Science)

The short, teal green structures are minor proteins that help in the assembly and function of envelope proteins.

The Zika virus
(Visual Science)
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The cell membrane is surrounded by a shell of proteins, seen in two shades of light blue. These are produced according to instructions in the virus’s RNA.

These envelope proteins, or E proteins, play a key role in allowing the Zika virus to enter a host cell. E proteins interact with receptors on the cell surface so the virus can pass through the membrane. The surface is pocked with little gray structures, called oligosaccharidesthat influence this process.

The Zika virus
The surface of the viral particle. 
(Visual Science)

You can see more of Visual Science’s medical illustrations here.

Follow me on Twitter @seangreene89 and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook. 

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