Viruses are facing a new charge

Exploiting the behaviour of RNA viruses to help inspire new disinfection processes.

Many RNA viruses like flu are made through a process where their components spontaneously self-assemble. Upon infection they then disassemble again to release the RNA. This means that they live on the edge of thermodynamic stability, holding together just strongly enough to survive in the environment, but ready to fall apart once they make it into a host.

Recent work by colleagues based in the School’s Institute for Condensed Matter and Complex Systems suggests a way in which we might be able to exploit this to develop new cleaning or disinfecting processes.

In their Nature Communications paper, the team presents a theoretical model of the electrostatics of viruses near air-saline interfaces. The RNA within a virus is highly negatively charged, but salt ions in the solution usually act to screen the repulsion. When held at an air-water interface, there is no longer sufficient salt in the surroundings to screen the charges, and the increased electrostatic force destabilises the virus, and may cause it to fall apart. This result explains the decades-old observation that gently shaking a virus containing solution is enough to deactivate them, and could inspire new disinfectant formulations.