How herpes viruses put on their protective coat

Herpes simplex viruses have two proteins that make protective coats for new virus particles using membranes from their host cells.
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Structure of the herpes simplex virus proteins pUL7 (green) and pUL51 (blue). Image credit: Ben Butt (CC BY 4.0)

Most people suffer from occasional cold sores, which are caused by the herpes simplex virus. This virus causes infections that last your entire life, but for the most part it lies dormant in your cells and reactivates only at times of stress. When it reactivates, the virus manipulates host cells to make new virus particles that may spread the infection to other people. Like many other viruses, herpes simplex viruses also steal jelly-like structures known as membranes from their host cells to form protective coats around new virus particles.

In cells from humans and other animals, proteins belonging to a molecular machine known as ESCRT form filaments that bend and break membranes as the cells require. Many viruses hijack the ESCRT machinery to wrap membranes around new virus particles. However, herpes simplex viruses do not follow the usual rules for activating this machine. Instead, they rely on two viral proteins called pUL7 and pUL51 to hot-wire the ESCRT machinery. Previous studies have shown that these two proteins bind to each other, but it remained unclear how they work.

Butt et al. used a combination of biochemical and biophysical techniques to solve the three-dimensional structures of pUL7 and pUL51 when bound to each other. The experiments determined that the structure of pUL51 resembles the structures of different components in the ESCRT machinery. Like the ESCRT proteins, pUL51 formed filaments, suggesting that pUL51 bends membranes in cells and that pUL7 blocks it from doing so until the time is right. Further experiments showed that the equivalents of pUL7 and pUL51 in other members of the herpes virus family also bind to each other in a similar way.

These findings reveal that herpes simplex viruses and their close relatives have evolved a different strategy than many other viruses to steal membranes from host cells. Interfering with this mechanism may provide new avenues for designing drugs or improving vaccines against these viruses. The pUL7 and pUL51 proteins may also inspire new tools in biotechnology that could precisely control the shapes of biological membranes.