Researchers have long wondered why the flu virus seems to be more prevalent and spread more quickly during the winter season. The answer may, in part, lie in the molecular components from which the virus is built.
Viruses consist of a small amount of genetic material, inside of an outer membrane-like coat of protein and lipid (fat). During the life cycle of a virus, it first binds to a host cell and inserts its genetic material into the cell. Viral genes hijack the cell’s machinery to make copies of itself. This process destroys the cell. Newly formed viruses spread within the body and ultimately between individuals.
Researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development examined the properties of the virus's outer, protective coat with respect to temperature. They discovered that the outer coat becomes more protective at lower temperatures – a result of the lipid components of the outer coat becoming more gel-like as the temperature decreases.
These types of basic insights into how viruses protect themselves will further the development of more effective anti-viral medications.