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U.C. Riverside Physicists Study Virus Rules to Break Them

Submitted/U.C. Riverside

Two U.C. Riverside physicists are working to understand the rules for how viruses build themselves, something that could drive the development of new drug therapies for COVID-19. KVCR’s Megan Jamerson spoke with them ahead of a free virtual event Tuesday, April 20 where they will discuss how their research can help us better understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Are viruses alive? And why do physicists study them? These are two questions Dr. Roya Zandi is often asked.

"I think that I feel uncomfortable to say this because some of them are deadly, but they are beautiful. They are simple and beautiful," said Zandi. "That’s why physicists are attracted to viruses.”

She says physicists like herself want to understand the forces that cause viruses to assembly themselves versus biologists want to understand how specific viruses interact with hosts—like how the SARS-CoV-2 virus causes the COVID-19 disease.

Now, viruses are not living breathing things. So, in order to build new versions of themselves, or replicate, viruses hijack cells in a host to make new parts. What’s really amazing says Zandi’s colleague Dr. Thomas Kuhlman is that once all the new parts are there it’s like they act like a machine encoded with instructions.

“There’s a bunch of parts and they just pop together as a virus and there is no head," said Kuhlman. "They don’t sit there and think we have to do this next, and this next. It just automatically pops together.”

Understanding how something like this works gives you have a better idea for how to break it.

“By learning how it assembles and what forces are involved and what has to come together and how the pieces interact with each other, we hope that will be able with the help of our colleagues in biology [and] in the medical school to come up with something that can disrupt or use the virus to do what we like to do,” said Zandi.

Using their research to test drug therapies for viruses like SARS-CoV-2, is still a few years off, but until then they will keep working to understand the fundamental laws of the universe.

To learn more about attending Zandi and Kulhman’s talk about their research visit click here.