Ebola Virus May Replicate in an Exotic Way

Study Indicates Target for Future Drugs for Measles, Ebola, RSV


University of Utah physics doctoral student Xiaolin Tang and virologist Saveez Saffarian in the lab where they identified an exotic mechanism that may explain how a group of viruses that includes Ebola replicate or make copies of themselves to make people sick. Photo Credit: Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah

Dec. 11, 2014 – University of Utah researchers ran biochemical analysis and computer simulations of a livestock virus to discover a likely and exotic mechanism to explain the replication of related viruses such as Ebola, measles and rabies. The mechanism may be a possible target for new treatments within a decade.

“This is fundamental science. It creates new targets for potential antiviral drugs in the next five to 10 years, but unfortunately would not have an impact on the current Ebola epidemic” in West Africa, says Saveez Saffarian, senior author of a new study published today by the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Computational Biology.

Saffarian, a virologist and assistant professor of physics and astronomy, and his colleagues studied a horse, cattle and pig virus named VSV – vesicular stomatitis virus – which is a member of family called NNS RNA viruses. That family also includes closely related viruses responsible for Ebola, measles, rabies and the common, childhood respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. The genetic blueprint in these viruses is an RNA strand that is covered by protein like beads on a necklace.

By conducting 20,000 computer simulations of the VSV starting to replicate in different possible ways, the study found a “fundamental mechanism” used by VSV and related viruses like Ebola to make copies of themselves or replicate, Saffarian says.

The mechanism: Once the virus infects a cell, enzymes called polymerases literally slide along the protein “bead”-covered viral RNA strand until they reach the correct end of the strand. Then the polymerases can read and “transcribe” the RNA code to synthesize messenger RNA, or mRNA. Once one polymerase starts doing that, it collides with other sliding polymerases, kicking them loose within the cell until they, too, attach to the correct end of the RNA and start making copies. That lets the virus replicate and take over the infected host cell.

“The proposed sliding mechanism is a fundamental new mechanism specific to the NNS RNA viruses that can be a target for antiviral drugs in the future,” Saffarian says – something he hopes pharmaceutical scientists will pursue.

The sliding contrasts with replication in many other viruses, in which the polymerases easily detach from the virus inside an infected cell and then find the right end of the RNA so replication begins.

The mechanism was discovered by computer simulations, so “we are working now on demonstrating evidence of the sliding mechanism in VSV,” Saffarian says.

He believes the discovery is “as fundamental as understanding the workings of HIV protease” – an enzyme essential for replication of the AIDS virus and that became a target of protease inhibitors, which first made it possible for AIDS patients to live with AIDS as a chronic rather than deadly disease.

Saffarian conducted the study with first author and physics doctoral student Xiaolin Tang, and with research scientist Mourad Bendjennat. The National Science Foundation funded the study.

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Science Night Live with Brian Saam

Wednesday, Nov. 19 @ 5:30 p.m. - Science Night Live! with Brian Saam. "A History of the Second: From Grains of Sand to Atomic Clocks" at Keys on Main (242 South Main Street, Salt Lake City, UT).

SCIENCE NIGHT LIVE

with Dr. Brian Saam,
Professor of Physics & Astronomy

A History of the Second: From Grains of Sand to Atomic Clocks

Date & Time: Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. 5:30 - 7:00 PM

Location: Keys on Main (242 South Main Street, Salt Lake City, UT)
View Map

Without getting too deep into existential philosophy,we can begin a discussion of time with an operational definition: time separates cause from effect; more precisely, time delineates the order of events. Our earliest human ancestors recognized that to measure time, one needs a periodic event that is easily, reliably, and universally observed in exactly the same way. Both the rotation of the Earth on its axis and revolution of the Earth about the Sun satisfy these requirements and have been universally accepted time standards throughout most of recorded history. Every timepiece ever invented prior to 1967—sundials, water clocks, hourglasses, and mechanical clocks—traced its calibration in some way back to the apparent motion of the sun in the sky. However, as robust and reliable as this standard appears (the Earth’s rate of rotation slows by about 1 second in 60,000 years), it is inadequate for the modern frontiers of scientific discovery, as well as for the needs of a global telecommunications and geo-positioning infrastructure. A much more stable standard was developed starting in the 1960s that is based on a transition that occurs between two specific energy levels in atomic cesium. These “atomic clocks” are stable to about 1 second in 30 million years. Work on even more stable clocks (1 second in 30 billion years) is at the frontier of modern atomic physics.

Frontiers of Science is free and open to the public. Must be 21 or older to attend.

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Solar Eclipse Viewing Party at NHMU: 10/23/2014

From the Natural History Museum of Utah's website.

Solar Eclipse Viewing Party!

Natural History Museum of Utah (map & parking)
Sky Gallery, The Canyon & Outside Terraces at the Museum

Thursday, October 23, 2014
1:00 - 5:00 pm

Join us and spot it from from the best spot in the Salt Lake Valley!

  • Meet some of our knowledgeable and local astronomy experts and view the eclipse through professional solar telescopes brought by Salt Lake Astronomy Society.
  • Check out the newest robotic system, COLE mrk 5, built by RoboUtes, recently back from NASA robo-ops competition.
  • Create your own pinhole viewer that will help you safetly view the eclipse.
  • Build your own Mars rover, soda bottle rocket, and more!

For more information on what we'll see on October 23, click here!

First 200 guests get a FREE pair of solar glasses!
*Solar glasses can also be purchased in the Museum Store.

Maximum Eclipse will occur at 4:26 pm
Best times to view the eclipse are from 4:15 to 4:40 pm.

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Asteroid Named for University of Utah

Orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, ‘Univofutah’ Is No Threat to Earth

Sept. 23, 2014 – What’s rocky, about a mile wide, orbits between Mars and Jupiter and poses no threat to Earth?
An asteroid named “Univofutah” after the University of Utah.


At the request of longtime Utah astronomy educator Patrick Wiggins, shown here, the International Astronomical Union this month named an asteroid that Wiggins discovered in 2008 as "Univofutah" to honor the University of Utah. Photo Credit: Bill Dunford

Discovered on Sept. 8, 2008, by longtime Utah astronomy educator Patrick Wiggins, the asteroid also known as 391795 (2008 RV77) this month was renamed Univofutah by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“It’s neat,” Wiggins says. “There aren’t too many other universities on the whole planet with asteroids named after them. So that puts the U in rather rarified company.”

“We are very honored,” says Carleton Detar, the university’s chairman of physics and astronomy. “Patrick Wiggins has been a dedicated champion of Utah amateur astronomy. Next, we’ll need student volunteers to install a large block U on our asteroid.”

Wiggins, who now works as a part-time public education assistant in the university’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, had submitted the naming request in July as “Univ of Utah” but the naming agency changed it to Univofutah – much to the dismay of university marketing officials, who would have preferred “U of Utah.” Wiggins says names must be limited to 16 characters, ruling out the university’s full name

The asteroid “is no more than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) across,” Wiggins says. Because of its small size and distance, it is “too far away for even the Hubble Space Telescope to determine the shape.”

“Thankfully, this one will not be coming anywhere near the Earth,” he adds. “It’s a loooong way out. It is in the main asteroid belt. It stays between the orbits or Mars and Jupiter.”

As a NASA solar system ambassador to Utah since 2002, Wiggins this year won NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, the space agency’s highest civilian honor.

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Two Years on Mars: The Good, Bad and Ugly

Frontiers of Science Lecture Series

Sept. 17, 2014 – Kimberly Lichtenberg, an instrument engineer for the Mars Curiosity rover, will speak about “Two Years on Mars: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” during the University of Utah’s Frontiers of Science Lecture on Wednesday, Sept. 24.

For two years NASA’s Curiosity rover vehicle was on a mission to answer a fundamental question about Mars: Was the planet ever a habitable environment? After the successful landing of the rover in August 2012, the team used Curiosity to explore the plains and deltas of Mars’ Gale Crater, a location known for its abundant minerals. The rover completed its journey in July after two years of lucky finds, obstacles and flat tires.

Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity previously found that liquid water once existed on Mars, suggesting the planet may have supported some form of life. In her lecture, Lichtenberg, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will discuss where to look for a habitable environment on Mars, the importance of Gale Crater to the mission and how humans can handle living on Mars time. Mars has a 24-hour, 39-minute day, which means mission researchers needed to start their shifts 39 minutes later each day, eventually working in the middle of the night.

Lichtenberg is a system engineer for the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument on Curiosity. She helps develop and maintain instruments that investigate a habitable environment on Mars. Lichtenberg also is part of the team that controls the rover, making her job “completely different and exciting” every day.

She received a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree and doctorate in Earth and planetary sciences from Washington University in St. Louis. Lichtenberg also is an advocate on social media for space exploration.

The Frontiers of Science Lecture Series is sponsored by the University of Utah’s College of Science and College of Mines and Earth Sciences.

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Nuclear Spins Control Current in Plastic LED

Step toward Quantum Computing, Spintronic Memory, Better Displays

Sept. 18, 2014 – University of Utah physicists read the subatomic “spins” in the centers or nuclei of hydrogen isotopes, and used the data to control current that powered light in a cheap, plastic LED – at room temperature and without strong magnetic fields.


University of Utah physicist Christoph Boehme works in his laboratory on an apparatus used in a new study that brings physics a step closer to “spintronic” devices such as superfast computers, more compact data storage devices and more efficient organic LEDs or OLEDS than those used today for display screens in cell phones, computers and televisions. The study, published in the Sept. 19 issue of the journal Science, showed the physicists could read the subatomic “spins” in hydrogen nuclei and use the data to control current that powers light in a cheap, plastic LED, or OLED, under practical operating conditions. Photo Credit: Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah

The study – published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science – brings physics a step closer to practical machines that work “spintronically” as well as electronically: superfast quantum computers, more compact data storage devices and plastic or organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, more efficient than those used today in display screens for cell phones, computers and televisions.

“We have shown we can use room-temperature, plastic electronic devices that allow us to see the orientation of the tiniest magnets in nature – the spins in the smallest atomic nuclei,” says physics professor Christoph Boehme, one of the study’s principal authors. “This is a step that may lead to new ways to store information, produce better displays and make faster computers.”

The experiment is a much more practical version of a study Boehme and colleagues published in Science in 2010, when they were able to read nuclear spins from phosphorus atoms in a conventional silicon semiconductor. But they could only do so when the apparatus was chilled to minus 453.9 degrees Fahrenheit (nearly absolute zero), was bombarded with intense microwaves and exposed to superstrong magnetic fields.

In the new experiments, the physicists were able to read the nuclear spins of two isotopes of hydrogen: a single proton and deuterium, which is a proton, neutron and electron. The isotopes were embedded in an inexpensive plastic polymer or organic semiconductor named MEH-PPV, an OLED that glows orange when current flows.

The researchers flipped the spins of the hydrogen nuclei to control electrical current flowing though the OLED, making the current stronger or weaker. They did it at room temperature and without powerful light bombardment or magnetic fields – in other words, at normal operating conditions for most electronic devices, Boehme says.

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