Reidun Twarock: Viruses and Geometry - Where Symmetry meets Function
(University of York, UK)
Wednesday, May 23th 2012, 5 p.m.
Felix Klein Hörsaal, Mathematisches Institut, Johannisgasse 26, 04103 Leipzig
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Reidun Twarock is Professor of Mathematical Biology at the University of York (UK). Her interdisciplinary research group develops new mathematical and computational tools for the prediction of virus structure, and uses these in combination with techniques from biophysics, bioinformatics and computational chemistry to investigate how viruses form, evolve and infect their hosts. For example, their work in collaboration with experimental colleagues at the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology in Leeds has contributed to a paradigm shift in our understanding of RNA virus assembly, away from a “protein-centric” view to one that recognizes the multiple vital cooperative roles of the viral RNA during capsid formation. She has held a number of prestigious fellowships, including a Dorothea-Erxleben, Marie Curie and an EPSRC Advanced fellowship, and is recipient of a Leverhulme Trust Research Leadership Award. She has been Lecturer at City University in London before moving to a Readership in York in 2005, where she has been promoted to a personal chair in 2009. Her work has been showcased at numerous events including the Mathematics Matters case studies of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) (see PDF), the Cambridge Science Festival in 2011 and has been selected for the Grand Science Tour in York.
Viruses have protein containers with icosahedral symmetry as this allows them to maximize container volume while minimizing the length of the genomic sequence needed to code for the building blocks. From a mathematical point of view, this implies that techniques from group, graph and tiling theory can be used to predict virus architecture. We show here that via an affine extension of the icosahedral group and associated tilings, new predictive information regarding virus structure can be obtained that reveals a previously unrecognised structural correlation between different viral components. We discuss the implications of such structural features for function, i.e. for how viruses form and infect their hosts. In particular, we report on our work in collaboration with experimental colleagues at the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology in Leeds in which we discovered that far from being a passive passenger, the viral genomic RNAs play multiple co-operative roles during the assembly of the protein containers. Based on the example of two evolutionarily related phages, we demonstrate the existence of a common, evolutionarily conserved assembly mechanism in this viral family and discuss consequences for viral evolution.