Common Cold Virus: Structure and Function

Instructor: Jeremy Battista
The common cold is one of life's greatest mysteries. It seems it can be accused of causing a myriad of problems, but it's most pervasive role is that of an incurable virus. We explore the structure and function here.

What is the Common Cold?

The common cold is a viral infection in humans. This usually occurs in the upper respiratory tract, causing sneezing, runny nose, and a sore throat. Occasionally fever will also accompany the other symptoms. This results in an overall feeling of sickness. It normally resolves itself within a few days, but the symptoms can last in small amounts for a few weeks.

The upper respiratory tract in humans. This is the most commonly affected area.
Upper Respiratory Tract

The common cold is not deadly, but the symptoms can be a major irritation. Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold. Research has determined that the most likely culprit for the common cold are the ones called Rhinoviruses. Since there are over 200 possibilities, we will focus on only a few rhinoviruses when discussing the structure of the virus. It is important to note that coronaviruses are the second culprit to cause the common cold, but at 20% of cases, they are half of the rhinoviruses responsible at 40%.


The structure of the common rhinovirus is very typical of viruses. There is the DNA in the center, followed by a protective capsid. There is no envelope as this is non-enveloped virus. The capsid is an icosahedral shape, a 20 sided polygon, that is created by four specific proteins found in the capsid. Three of these proteins are more important than the fourth and end protein. The fourth one is the smallest and does the least amount of work but is important nonetheless.

This is a coronavirus, the second most common virus to cause the common cold.

The three other proteins in the capsid are important in helping the virus replicate, or copy itself. They are referred to as Viral Proteins (VP) 1, 2, and 3. These are the main helpers in infection as they help to attach, anchor, and then copy the DNA of the virus. The smaller VP4 acts as a go-between of the DNA material and the capsid of VP1, 2, and 3. It helps to interact with the host cell and the DNA of the virus.


As stated above the common cold virus, in our case here, rhinovirus uses its structure in order to properly attack the host cell. The virus will enter the body through typical means, when someone coughs, sneezes, or in any other manner discharges saliva or mucus from their body. The virus can infect a human upon entering the body. It will quickly look for a host cell to attack. Once this occurs the virus will latch onto the cell. The viral proteins help this to occur as well as help to copy the DNA inside of the capsid.

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