Petri Dish Pandemic: Watch a Viral Infection Spread


This video, from WID’s Systems Biology group, shows a commonly studied type of virus, the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), infecting a cell colony over the course of 15 hours. VSV is closely related to more important human pathogens such as rabies and measles. One second in the video equals about an hour in real-time.

Researchers engineered the virus to express a fluorescent protein that “lights up” once it infects a cell. This is why the uninfected cells, which are gray in color, appear to turn white when the virus infects them and their neighbors.

Adam Swick, a Ph.D. student in the group, says the virus forces the cells into a process called “cell-cell fusion” — when multiple cells fuse together to create a ball-like mass with several nuclei — making it easier for the infection to spread through the colony. Swick and other scientists at WID also look at how natural flows of fluid through cell colonies influence the speed and direction of an infection.


The second video tracks the movement of a viral infection for nearly 30 hours, showing how cells activate their defenses when faced with viral invaders. Some cells resort to apoptosis — cell suicide — to avoid becoming infected.

Expanding these principles beyond the petri dish, the group wants to understand viral infections at larger scales, including at the tissue and organism level. Ultimately, the team wants to know why certain viruses are better evolved to hijack their hosts. The answer could lie in viral genomes or even the cell environment itself.

Video credits: Adam Swick and Carrie Roy

Marianne English