The Zika virus was one of the top health stories of 2016 and it was rightfully so, after infecting people in the hundred thousands around the world. Now, researchers have identified seven key proteins within the virus that may have been responsible for the extent of the damage of the Zika outbreak.

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine detailed for the first time the Zika virus genome's comprehensive description, isolating seven key proteins possibly behind the virus' deadly activity.

The Zika virus is not new but it was relatively unknown. And because not a lot was known about it, the virus was virtually unstoppable, causing a range of serious health conditions, including neurological problems, like the Guillain-Barré syndrome, and birth defects, like microcephaly. It was clear then that Zika was dangerous but it was not clear what exactly made the virus so.

"The mechanism of this virus has been a real mystery," said Richard Zhao, the study's lead researcher.

With results from the study, the researchers now have insight about how the virus affects cells, which can also drive future research about Zika.

Identifying Zika Virus Proteins

In recent years, fission yeast has been used as a common way of testing how cells are affected by pathogens. Originally, it was intended for beer production but it found its way inside laboratories over the years to be used by scientists in studying cell behavior and mechanism.

In the past, Zhao had used fission yeast to study HIV and the Yellow Barley Dwarf virus, a pathogen in plants that causes billions of dollars in damage to crops each year around the globe. Given his familiarity with the fission yeast model and the race to study Zika, Zhao turned to the method to dissect the virus' genome.

For the study, Zhao and colleagues separated the Zika virus' 14 proteins and small peptides from the main virus. Yeast cells were then exposed to each of the proteins and the researchers observed that seven of the 14 proteins harmed the cells on some level, like inhibiting their growth, causing damage and even killing them.

Next Steps In Zika Research

Having identified these seven proteins, the researchers' next step is to further study them to see how they affect human cells. Aside from causing damage on its own, a Zika protein may also work in conjunction with others to bring about harm.

Zika Virus Threat

In the United States and its territories, over 38,000 Zika cases have been reported, majority of which are in Puerto Rico. The virus can harm anyone but it was the biggest threat to pregnant women because a Zika infection could lead to microcephaly. Even Zika-infected babies born with normal-sized heads can still suffer from the effects of microcephaly after birth, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The World Health Organization has deemed the Zika outbreak to be no longer a public health emergency but warns that the virus remains a threat. Currently, there are no treatments or vaccines in place to prevent or address the symptoms of Zika infections.

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