Two reasearchers, a virologist and a biophysicist at Rockefeller University, are the first to see in real time hundreds of thousands of molecules coming together in a living cell to form a single particle of HIV, using a specialized microscope that only illuminates the cell's surface.
This work may be beneficial in developing treatments for the millions of HIV patients worldwide, according to an article describing the research.
"The use of this technique is almost unlimited," Nature magazine quoted Nolwenn Jouvenet, a postdoctoral fellow who spearheaded the project under the direction of HIV expert Paul Bieniasz and cellular biophysicist Sandy Simon, as saying.
"Now that we can actually see a virus being born, it gives us the opportunity to answer previously unanswered questions, not only in virology but in biology in general," Jouvenet added.
The researchers call their new technique total internal reflection microscopy.
They say that unlike a classical microscope, their technique only illuminates the cell's surface where HIV assembles.
"The result is that you can see, in exquisite detail, only events at the cell surface. You never even illuminate anything inside of the cell so you can focus on what you are interested in seeing the moment it is happening," said Simon, professor and head of the Laboratory of Cellular Biophysics, who has been developing the imaging technique since 1992.
The researchers said that being able to illuminate the surface of the cell was helpful in gaining useful insights into the events going on at its most outer membrane, as well as in determining that it takes about five to six minutes for each HIV particle to assemble.
"At first, we had no idea whether it would take milliseconds or hours. We just didn't know," said Jouvenet.
Bieniasz added: "This is the first time anyone has seen a virus particle being born."
He clarified: "Not just HIV, any virus."