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A Visual Guide to the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus: What scientists know about the inner workings of the pathogen that has infected the world

Author: Mark Fischetti, Veronica Falconieri Hays, Britt Glaunsinger, Jen Christiansen

Fischetti, Mark, et al. “A Visual Guide to the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus.” Scientific American, Scientific American, July 2020, www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-visual-guide-to-the-sars-cov-2-coronavirus/.


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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays; Source: Lorenzo Casalino, Zied Gaieb and Rommie Amaro, U.C. San Diego (spike model with glycosylations)
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For all the mysteries that remain about the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes, scientists have generated an incredible amount of fine-grained knowledge in a surprisingly short time.

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Thousands of different coronaviruses may inhabit the planet. Four of them are responsible for many of our common colds. Two others have already triggered alarming outbreaks of disease: in 2002 a coronavirus caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which killed more than 770 people worldwide, and in 2012 a different strain started Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), taking more than 800 lives. SARS burned out within a year; MERS still lingers.

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The newest coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has created a far deadlier pandemic in part because once it infects a person it can lie undetected for a long time. An individual who had the SARS coronavirus did not transmit it until 24 to 36 hours after displaying symptoms such as fever and dry cough; people feeling ill could be isolated before they made others sick. But people with COVID-19 can transmit the virus before they show clear symptoms. Not feeling ill, infected men and women work, commute, shop, eat out and attend parties, all the while exhaling coronavirus into the airspace of people around them. The virus can remain undetected inside the human body for so long partly because its genome produces proteins that delay our immune system from sounding an alarm. Meanwhile lung cells die as the virus secretly reproduces. When the immune system does hear the call, it can go into overdrive, suffocating the very cells it is trying to save.

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In the graphics that follow, Scientific American presents detailed explanations, current as of mid-June, into how SARS-CoV-2 sneaks inside human cells, makes copies of itself and bursts out to infiltrate many more cells, widening infection. We show how the immune system would normally attempt to neutralize virus particles and how CoV-2 can block that effort. We explain some of the virus's surprising abilities, such as its capacity to proofread new virus copies as they are being made to prevent mutations that could destroy them. And we show how drugs and vaccines might still be able to overcome the intruders.

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As virologists learn more, we will update these graphics on our Web site (www.scientificamerican.com). Greater knowledge can raise the chances for humans to prevail.

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illustration of SARS-CoV2 virus particle highlights RNA lipid membrane and E M and S proteins
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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays; Source: Lorenzo Casalino, Zied Gaieb and Rommie Amaro, U.C. San Diego (spike model with glycosylations)
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VIRUS INVASION AND IMMUNE RESPONSE

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A SARS-CoV-2 particle enters a person's nose or mouth and floats in the airway until it brushes against a lung cell that has an ACE2 receptor on the surface. The virus binds to that cell, slips inside and uses the cell's machinery to help make copies of itself. They break out, leaving the cell for dead, and penetrate other cells. Infected cells send out alarms to the immune system to try to neutralize or destroy the pathogens, but the viruses can prevent or intercept the signals, buying time to replicate widely before a person shows symptoms.

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Virus binds to a lung cell
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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays
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Virus slips inside
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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays
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Virus replicates and copies break out
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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays
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The immune system defense measures
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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays
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Virus countermeasures
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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays
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DRUG AND VACCINE INTERVENTION

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Commercial and university labs are investigating well over 100 drugs to fight COVID-19, the disease the SARS-CoV-2 virus causes. Most drugs would not destroy the virus directly but would interfere with it enough to allow the body's immune system to clear the infection. Antiviral drugs generally stop a virus from attaching to a lung cell, prevent a virus from reproducing if it does invade a cell, or dampen an overreaction by the immune system, which can cause severe symptoms in infected people. Vaccines prepare the immune system to quickly and effectively fight a future infection.

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Illustrations show four ways that drugs may fight COVID-19
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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays
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Illustrations show six strategies that vaccine makers are pursuing
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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays
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THE REMARKABLE AND MYSTERIOUS CORONAVIRUS GENOME

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The SARS-CoV-2 genome is a strand of RNA that is about 29,900 bases long—near the limit for RNA viruses. Influenza has about 13,500 bases, and the rhinoviruses that cause common colds have about 8,000. (A base is a pair of compounds that are the building blocks of RNA and DNA.) Because the genome is so large, many mutations could occur during replication that would cripple the virus, but SARS-CoV-2 can proofread and correct copies. This quality control is common in human cells and in DNA viruses but highly unusual in RNA viruses. The long genome also has accessory genes, not fully understood, some of which may help it fend off our immune system.

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characteristics that set the SARS CoV-2 genome apart from those of other RNA viruses
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Credit: Veronica Falconieri Hays; Source: “The Architecture of SARS-CoV-2 Transcriptome,” by Dongwan Kim et al., in Cell, Vol 181, May 14, 2020 (genome)
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Read more about the coronavirus outbreak from Scientific American here. And read coverage from our international network of magazines here.

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This article was originally published with the title "Inside the Coronavirus" in Scientific American 323, 1, 32-37 (July 2020)

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doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0720-32

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DMU Timestamp: May 11, 2020 21:16

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Aug 29
Lu m (Aug 29 2020 5:18PM) : great article for high schooler interested in finding out more about covid-19 virus more

This article from scientific american is very well written with great illustrations to help young readers understand the basic structure of the virus, the important proteins and how the virus enters the human lung cell, replicates and the immune responses it triggered. How different drugs target different part of this virus host interaction to stop the virus. How does the human immune system attack the virus and how the over reaction of the immune system is the main cause that patients were put on the ventilators. Lastly, it talked about the mechanisms to develop a vaccine.

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Sep 3
Aline V (Sep 03 2020 9:47AM) : opinion more

I agree with your comments Lu, I think this article is geared for the higher grade levels, but packed with visuals to aid students to visually see how viruses work within the human body system. This could count as a reference in a lesson plan that gears towards learning about the human body, the immune system, and how everything works.

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Sep 3
Jonathan P (Sep 03 2020 4:29PM) : Great article. more

This is such a fantastic article describing the process of viral infection. The corresponding visual diagrams truly enhance the learning experience.

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Sep 6
Jessica A (Sep 06 2020 2:29PM) : Ooooo so colorful and engaging! This is a resource I would utilize with my upper level high school students for sure! [Edited] more

Even though it is an ugly virus- these colorful beautiful pictures are very engaging for a learner like myself. I am a kinesthetic learner and being able to not only read this information, but view really detailed pictures of it up close and personal the way you do with this particular article would completely hold my attention. Excellent resource for students who need more in order to stay engaged with the text. Also, again this is a topic that is very relevant to all of us. Keeping the subject matter relevant to our students lives is imperative.

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Sep 20
Karen M (Sep 20 2020 4:02PM) : This is a great article to use in class more

First, it is amazing to see how the visual aids in this article bring this novel virus alive. This format can help students develop a clear picture of how this virus has managed to affected the world and why the drastic measures taken were of extreme importance. By allowing students to observe the facts themselves, they can formulate their own opinions. This is necessary as students are exposed to endless information, which can be both true or false.

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