Rescue rafts are a lifesaver, but other types of rafts may put our lives in danger—that is the case with “lipid rafts,” which are exploited by coronaviruses to attack human cells. An interdisciplinary research group, coordinated by the University of Trento and the University of Napoli-Federico II in Italy, set out to understand what happens when a virus jumps on this type of raft to invade a cell. To penetrate the human cell, the virus tricks the cell membrane that surrounds the cell. The membrane has a crucial role, because it ensures the regular functioning of the cell which is essential for tissue growth and development and organ functionality. When a virus sneaks into a cell pretending to be something friendly--a ligand, namely a molecule that binds to a chemically affine receptor and forms a complex capable of causing a cellular response--the membrane responds by creating localized thickened zones, called “lipid rafts.” Indeed, that is where receptors find favorable sites for binding. Indeed, receptors must change their configuration as they bind to their ligand and this can be done more easily across suitable stress-relieved zones of the cell membrane, namely on the rafts. Also, these thickenings turn out to be energetically favorable for the system, thereby becoming entryways for viruses and ligands in general. The researchers adopted a mechanobiological approach to explain how the microstructural properties of the membrane interact with biochemical processes to form lipid rafts. The study may suggest new strategies to limit virus attacks and prevent or combat diseases like SARS and Covid-19 based on biomedical and engineering principles.
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