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Advanced Photon Source helps answer key questions about common cold virus

In a world where doctors can treat the most devastating illnesses, the common cold remains elusive.

That's because up until recently, scientists knew little about the viruses that spread this seasonal nuisance.

But that may be changing now that researchers have mapped one virus's atomic structure using the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.

Glen Nemerow and Vijay Reddy have been studying the human adenovirus—responsible for 10% of colds in addition to other, more harmful infections—for more than a dozen years.

Nemerow, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and Reddy, an associate professor in Scripp's Department of Molecular Biology, paired up in the late 1990s.

Together they mapped the virus using x-ray crystallography. Their findings were published in the journal Science on August 27, 2010.

"The more we know about the virus' structural features, the better we understand how it functions," Nemerow said. "This will help us learn more about how the virus infects host cells so that we can develop effective anti-virals."

The major protein component of adenovirus, called hexon, was crystallized—meaning that the proteins were arranged in a way that they could be studied by x-ray diffraction—in 1968. But it wasn't until 2000 that the refined structure of the hexon could be determined.

By contrast, Nemerow and Reddy determined the structure of the entire virus. This has allowed them to learn how that major protein or hexon was incorporated into the virus and how it interacts with other proteins.

The Scripps scientists said their discovery would not be possible without the use of Argonne's APS.

"The use of this particular beam line was critical," Reddy said. "You need to have a high resolution to be able to visualize the virus in greater detail. We could only obtain that at Argonne."

Reddy said he and Nemerow tried a number of other beam lines before they settled on what is known as the General Medicine and Cancer Institutes Collaborative Access Team (GM/CA-CAT) at the APS.

"The beam line is quite intense compared to others," Reddy said. "It's more laser-like."

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