Zika virus has infected hundreds of thousands of people around the world, mostly in the Americas. In the United States and its territories, more than 38,000 Zika cases have been reported so far, most of them in Puerto Rico. There are no vaccines or treatments to prevent or treat the symptoms of Zika infection.
To test the virus, Dr. Zhao (University of Maryland School of Medicine) used fission yeast, a species that in recent years has become a relatively common way to test how pathogens affect cells. Fission yeast was originally used to make beer, particularly in Africa, where it originated. (Its species name is Schizosaccharomyces pombe; pombe means beer in Swahili.) Over decades, fission yeast has been used by many scientists to find out mechanisms and behavior of cells.
Dr. Zhao is a pioneer in using the fission yeast model to study HIV, as well as the Yellow Barley Dwarf virus, a plant pathogen that causes billions of dollars in crop damage every year throughout the world. So he was very familiar with the fission yeast model. "With Zika we are in a race against time," he says. "I asked myself what I can do to help. I have this unique way of dissecting the genome. So I started on this."
For the experiment, Dr. Zhao and his colleagues separated each of the virus's 14 proteins and small peptides from the overall virus. He then exposed yeast cells to each of the 14 proteins, to see how the cells responded. Seven of the 14 proteins harmed or damaged the yeast cells in some way, inhibiting their growth, damaging them or killing them.
Posted by Dr. Tim Sandle