Epstein Barr Virus: Structure and Function

Instructor: Jeremy Battista

Jeremy has a master of science degree in education.

The Epstein Barr virus affects more individuals per year than you may know. If you catch it, it will make you very sick. We'll explore here what Epstein Barr is, what it does, and what it looks like.

What is Epstein Barr?

Epstein Barr is a common form of the herpes virus, specifically human herpesvirus 4. As with many forms of herpes, it is one of the most common viruses worldwide. It is also known to cause a number of different symptoms in those infected. It's passed easily through body fluids such as saliva, which is why one of the illnesses caused by Epstein Barr is mononucleosis, or 'the kissing disease.'

Here is an actual view of the Epstein Barr virus.
Real life view of Epstein Barr

As amazing as modern medicine is, Epstein Barr is still not fully understood, but we have linked it to many different and varied diseases. Some of these include Hodgkin's Lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes), multiple sclerosis, and nasopharyngeal carcinoma (another cancer, this time of the upper throat). It even has been linked to some other problems such as Parkinson's Disease.

Effects of Epstein Barr

The effects of Epstein Barr are numerous, and many are typical of any sort of sickness. Flu-like symptoms usually arise, and the patient will experience fatigue, fever, and a sore throat. Patients have also been known to suffer from swollen lymph nodes and an enlarged spleen. Those infected with Epstein Barr most often suffer from infectious mononucleosis, leading to possible enlarged spleens. This can cause complications if the patient does not steer clear from contact sports for at least a month after the infection clears up.

Symptoms of infectious mononucleosis, brought on by the Epstein Barr virus.

Understanding Its Structure

Epstein Barr is, like most viruses, extremely tiny. The virus itself is a DNA strand that is composed of somewhere around 85 genes. These are protected by a capsid, as most viruses are. Think of a capsid as a troop transport. It's entire function is to keep the genetic material safe from being destroyed before it can insert itself into a host, just like a troop transport keeps soldiers safe before delivering them into the battlefield.

Outside of the capsid is the tegument containing lots of different proteins, and beyond that an envelope that contains lipids (fats) that have projections that stick out, sort of like sticky tack. The envelope protects the entire structure. The projections help to attach to the host, allowing the virus to attack the host.

Here is a simplified version of the Epstein Barr virus. Note all the features.
Epstein Barr structure

How Does Its Structure Help Its Function?

The sheer size of the virus lends to its function. Recall that most viruses are microscopic so they're able to enter the host easily. Their size allows them to slip in undetected via saliva. Once inside, the virus utilizes its protein projections -- or 'spikes' -- to grab and attach onto the host's cells. These specialized projections are coded for specific proteins of certain cells so the virus knows what to attack and will not waste time on other cells.

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