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Two-faced RNA helps viruses hijack host cells
The mystery of how viruses use certain RNAs as ‘Trojan horses’ to allow the virus to hijack infected cells may have been solved. A new study published in the journal Nature suggest that the viral RNAs exploit their ‘two-faced’ architecture, with one face acting to mimic host RNA structures and the other face being less similar, enabling the viral RNA to switch between structures and carry out multiple tasks during infection. The study was led by researchers in the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Viruses are a threat to both health and agriculture worldwide. They establish themselves and multiply by infecting a host cell and then taking over the machinery of that cell for their own ends. Different viruses have different mechanisms for achieving this. One such mechanism is use of molecular mimics, whereby viral molecules mimic the structure and function of host cell molecules, thereby evading elimination by the immune system. These viral ‘Trojan horses’ help the virus to establish themselves in the host and multiply.

While the existence of viral RNA molecular mimics had been recognised for some time, the ways in which it acts as a mimic and also how it could switch between structures enabling multiple tasks to be carried out during infection was a mystery. In the current study, the research team used a technique called X-ray crystallography in order to visualise the three-dimensional structure of the turnip yellow mosaic virus RNA to high resolution. This led to the observation of the ‘two-faced’ nature of the RNA architecture. One face acts as the mimic of the host cell RNA while the other face confers the multi-tasking ability of the virus during infection. Molecular mimicry of this type is common among viruses, so this research could be relevant to many different viruses, with applications in development of therapies and vaccines.


Colussi, T.M., Costantino, D.A., Hammond, J.A., Ruehle, G.M., Nix, J.C. and Kieft, J.S. (2014). The structural basis of transfer RNA mimicry and conformational plasticity by a viral RNA. Nature

Press release: University of Colorado; available from [Accessed 10 June 2014]
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