A code hidden in the arrangement of the genetic information of single-stranded RNA viruses tells the virus how to pack itself within its outer shell of proteins. Credit: University of Leeds

ICT at the molecular level is what I see in this news from the University of Leeds informing that a team of researchers (actually three teams that have been worked sequentially since 2012) has cracked the code used by RNA virus (like the rhinovirus,the nasty bug giving cold to over a billion people every year) to enter a host cell.

A first team of scientists identified in 2012 the way a RNA virus manages to pack its code into a protein that is being attached to its outer wall. In this way the genetic code can infect a host cell enter its membrane and start duplicating. The folding is extremely complex and yet the virus manages to do that in a few milliseconds.

A second team of researchers, this time mathematicians at the university of York, managed to find an algorithm that can crack the code used by the virus and developed a computer based model of the coding system.

Finally, the third team managed to actually crack the code by using single molecule fluorescent spectroscopy to follow the RNA molecules as they unfold.

The discovery is important because opens the door to stop the virus by fiddling with its coding system. For me the interest lies in the amazing feat of applying math and information technology to unravel the mystery of protein unfolding, one of the most complex problem in biology. The complexity is just flabbergasting. The folding is the consequence of reciprocal attraction / repulsion of millions of atoms. Just computing the mutual forces on 3 bodies (it is the famous 3 bodies gravitational influence) goes beyond standard math, just imagine millions of them!

This is something at the very edges of ICT and it is amazing to see where we have been able to go.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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