ZIKA is a name feared by many but understood by few, even in the scientific community. There was a great deal of fear surrounding the Olympic games in Rio last summer because of the spread of the ZIKA virus (ZIKV) in Brazil and the potential birth defects it can cause. Now, a new study lends insight into the molecular structure of the infection in brain cells.
According to findings released on January 23, 2017 at Scientific Reports, ZIKV interferes with the cellular mechanisms that control cell division and alter the expression of genes that help to form and develop neuron and astrocyte cells.
A correlation between ZIKV and microcephaly, a condition in which an infant’s head is misshapen and abnormally small due to improper brain development, was established shortly after the disease, spread sexually or through infected mosquitoes, became an epidemic in 2016. However, little else is known. Scientists are still exploring the cellular changes the virus causes that lead to microcephaly, and it will take extensive studies of genes and molecular composition before they have a full understanding. What scientists do know now from recent analysis, however, is that the ZIKA virus alters the expression of hundreds of genes and proteins in developing brain cells, causing DNA damage and chromosomal instability such as aneuploidy. Some genes that are normally active in cellular division, and thus crucial to development, are inhibited from multiplying in infected cells.
In their most recent study, Brazilian scientists from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro used advanced technology to chart a map of the molecular interactions of infected neural cells to gain a better understanding of how the ZIKA virus relates to the impairment of cellular metabolism. They examined gene and protein expression in both infected and uninfected cells, and found that more than 500 genes and proteins were altered in the infected developing brain cells. Additionally, genes in charge of cell specialization were repressed in ZIKV infected cells, impeding neural cells from differentiating into specialized brain cells.
These findings are critical for understanding more about ZIKV and potentially finding a cure. As Stevens Rehen, lead author of the study and a researcher for the D’Or Institute for Research and Education and the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said, “Elucidating the foundations of Zika virus infection is crucial in order to develop tools against it.”
The researchers are optimistic about the potential of these findings for providing insight into the molecular mechanisms of the ZIKA virus and hopefully explaining, in the words of author Patricia Garcez, “some of the consequences seen on brain formation and function at these crucial points of brain development.”