Some physics of viruses and the grand questions still unanswered

author: Antonio Šiber, Institute of Physics
published: March 11, 2013,   recorded: March 2013,   views: 4292


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Seventy years after Schrödinger asked „What is life?“ we know that life is something related to information. But how „non-living“ matter became imbued with information is even a toughest question than the one Schrodinger asked. Most life is complicated, yet there are reasonably simple information-rich complexes that combine the two hallmark molecules of life i.e. DNA (or RNA) and protein – viruses. Viruses have something to do with life, since they propagate, adapt and change (evolve) only in „living matter“, yet whether they themselves are alive or not is not a resolved issue. Thus, they present a system perfectly suited for a physicist interested in questions of biology, since she/he can at least pretend to be studying some sort of a macromolecular complex, not really that different from e.g. microtubule, which is almost certainly not alive. Yet, even such poor-physicist-minded studies do eventually lead to questions that biologists typically ask, such as „What is it good for?“ or „How did it arise in the first place?“. I will illustrate one possible path from the physical studies of virus structure and energetics to these, biologically relevant questions. The particular path will be the one I walked through in my studies of viruses. These include the studies of virus shapes and elasticity, the electrostatic interactions in viruses, and the influence of physical interactions in viruses on their (dis)assembly.

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