Researchers at the Fredrich Schiller University Jena, the Leibinz Institute of Photonic Technology, and the University of Oxford have succeeded in using high-resolution imaging to reveal down to the millisecond how HIV spreads between living cells and the molecules it attacks. The findings demonstrate that the AIDS pathogen creates a certain lipid environment for replication.

The researchers examined the plasma membrane of the host cell through which HIV emerges from cells after having infected them. The investigators used the protein Gag, which coordinates the processes involved in the maturation of the virus, as a marker.

According to the report, the processes through which the virus releases itself and infects other cells happens where this protein accumulates. In order to decipher these, the researchers examined the diffusion at this budding site of the virus particle, which revealed that only certain lipids interact with HIV. For the study authors, understanding which molecules HIV needs in order to leave the cell and multiply is a crucial prerequisite for investigating how this spread can be prevented.

By combining spatially super-resolution fluorescence microscopy techniques with methods that enable the movement of labelled molecules to be tracked in real time, the study authors were able to understand how diseases develop at the smallest molecular level, thereby enabling the team to investigate individual molecules.

“This process enables us to reveal cellular mechanisms at the molecular level that are far too fast for previous investigation methods and run on spatial scales that are far too small,” lead author Christian Eggeling said in a press release.