By unlocking the secrets of a bizarre virus that can survive in near boiling acid, scientists at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine hope they can use its indestructible ways to successfully use genetic therapy to treat human diseases.

"What's interesting and unusual is being able to see how proteins and DNA can be put together in a way that's absolutely stable under the harshest conditions imaginable," researcher Edward H. Egelman, of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, said in a press release. "We've discovered what appears to be a basic mechanism of resistance - to heat, to desiccation, to ultraviolet radiation. And knowing that, then, we can go in many different directions, including developing ways to package DNA for gene therapy."

The human body is delicate, so to fight off various viruses that cause disease, it has developed many ways to destroy foreign DNA. However, this protective mechanism makes it difficult for scientists to use gene therapy to battle disease.

But this new indestructible virus, called SIRV2, may be just the answer to their problems. It infects a microscopic organism known as Sulfolobus islandicus that lives in "extremely unusual" conditions: acidic hot springs where temperatures top 175 degrees Fahrenheit (79 degrees Celsius). The UVA team has identified surprising similarities between the SIRV2 virus and the spores bacteria form to survive in such inhospitable environments, including the way that SIRV2 forces itself into what is called A-form, which allows it to protect its DNA.

"Some of these spores are responsible for very, very horrific diseases that are hard to treat, like anthrax. So we show in this paper that this virus actually functions in a similar way to some of the proteins present in bacterial spores," Egelman said.

Spores are also formed by C. difficile, which now accounts for approximately 30,000 deaths per year in the United States.

"Understanding how these bacterial spores work gives us potentially new abilities to destroy them," he added. "Having this basic scientific research leads in many, many directions, most of which are impossible to predict, in terms of what the implications are going to be."

Egelman and his colleagues were only able to crack the virus' mystery thanks to UVA's new powerful Titan Krios electron microscope, which can examine biological samples in previously impossible detail. Using this massive microscope, scientists may have found the key to overcoming the body's protective systems and fighting fatal human diseases.

The findings were published in the journal Science.

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