National Physical Laboratory

The world's smallest virus

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), in collaboration with the Universities of Brighton, Bristol and Reading, has engineered an artificial virus able to encapsulate and safely transfer small and large genes into human cells.

A molecular model of a virus shell (green) encapsulating a gene (orange). (Image courtesy: American Chemical Society.)
A molecular model of a virus shell (green)
encapsulating a gene (orange)

(Image courtesy: American Chemical Society)

Synthetic biology can be broadly defined as an enabling capability to engineer biology. This does not mean to create a new life, but to re-use and re-purpose nature's designs for the specific needs of the society. However, in order to engineer biology one must understand how, when and why biology works. And the best way to do this is to copy nature.

In this vein, NPL is developing physical biology – a discipline that strives for quantitative insights into biological systems at different levels of complexity, with an ultimate goal of producing reference standards, practices, methods and materials to ensure the safe and reliable use of synthetic biology.

A recent example to illustrate the reach and application of such a strategy has just been reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society which publishes findings of exceptional significance from across the chemical, physical and life sciences.

Using the principles of engineering metrology, an NPL-led research team emulated the most abundant form of life – viruses. Instead of using large complex proteins that make up viral shells the team designed very short protein fragments that assembled into the world's smallest virus, just 12 nm in diameter. Furthermore, the virus was shown to be structurally plastic with the ability to adapt its size to the size of genes it encapsulates.

Recognising the potential of the structure for applications, the American Chemical Society has highlighted this work in their recent press release explaining the promise and impact the virus may have in genetic medicine.

Indeed, with their uniform sizes and morphology, the virus shells provide a solid platform for developing candidate reference materials as suitable standards for gene transfer products. This work emphasises the impact measurement science makes on innovative solutions to healthcare, while contributing to the growing engineering metrology toolbox for life sciences. The healthcare, food production, energy, defence and computing sectors are all customers of the capability.

The study was funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), with measurements performed at the Diamond Light Source

Read the paper 'A De Novo Virus-Like Topology for Synthetic Virions' in J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2016, 138 (37), pp 12202–12210

Find out more about NPL's Biotechnology research

Contact: Max Ryadnov

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Last Updated: 27 Sep 2016
Created: 26 Sep 2016

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