Nano-life: An Introduction to Virus Structure and Assembly

Course Info

Course Number/Code: 7.34 (Fall 2005)
Course Title: Nano-life: An Introduction to Virus Structure and Assembly
Course Level: Undergraduate
Offered By: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Department: Biology
Course Instructor(s): Dr. Melissa Kosinski-Collins
Dr. Peter Weigele
Course Introduction:
Syllabus Course Description

Watson and Crick noted that the size of a viral genome was insufficient to encode a protein large enough to encapsidate it and reasoned, therefore that a virus shell must be composed of multiple, but identical subunits. Today, high resolution structures of virus capsids reveal the basis of this genetic economy as a highly symmetrical structure, much like a geodesic dome composed of protein subunits. Crystallographic structures and cryo-electron microscopy reconstructions combined with molecular data are beginning to reveal how these nano-structures are built. Topics covered in the course will include basic principles of virus structure and symmetry, capsid assembly, strategies for enclosing nucleic acid, proteins involved in entry and exit, and the life cycles of well understood pathogens such as HIV, influenza, polio, and Herpes. The course will also review cutting edge structural methods and will include a field trip to the department's transmission electron microscope (TEM).

Course Format

This class will meet every Wednesday throughout the academic semester (excluding university holidays). During the typical class session, we will analyze two papers in a discussion-based format. Everyone should read both papers before class, and each student should be prepared to raise and answer questions. At the beginning of each class, we will have a question and answer period in which the instructor and the rest of the class will respond to any specific questions that the students may have thought of while reading the articles. We will spend the remainder of the class discussing the data presented in the article by analyzing each figure and resulting conclusions. Each class will conclude with a brief outline of the following week's class introduced by the instructor.


Students are expected to attend every class meeting and turn in all assignments on time on the date they are assigned. The major focus will be on discussion and interpretation of scientific papers, so student attendance and participation is essential. Other than week 1, there will be no lectures and students should come to class prepared to participate in a discussion of the assigned papers. Missing a class should occur only in extreme circumstances. If a student knows he/she must miss a class, he/she must contact the instructor in advance and receive permission for the absence. Students who have been allowed an excused absence will be asked to complete a written assignment concerning the papers discussed during the missed class session.


As the goal of this course is to familiarize students with the reading and critical evaluation of the primary literature (research papers) in the virus structure and assembly fields, students are expected to have completed:

7.03 Genetics

7.05 General Biochemistry

7.06 Cell Biology

7.08 Biological Chemistry II

Grading and Evaluation

There are no exams. The class has a pass/fail grading system. There will be two two-page written assignments and a project. The first assignment will be a project and will involving building a model of a virus structure. Models should be completed for class on session 3. For the second assignment, students will be given an abstract from a scientific paper and will be asked to design a set of experiments that would support the conclusions presented in it. This assignment will be due on the day of session 5. The final assignment will coincide with an oral presentation and will involve presenting an original research proposal to the rest of the class followed by a critique. Students should contact the instructors to discuss ideas and topics. The written research proposal should be handed in before session 12. Students will be expected to rewrite their proposals incorporating any changes deemed necessary by the instructors and hand-in rewritten documents at the final class meeting. The proposal presentations will take place in class on session 15.