What is Unique About the Structure of Influenza?

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  • Written By: Christina Hall
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2019
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The structure of influenza is complicated even to seasoned virologists. One of the most unique aspects of influenza is its ability to mutate its structure or formation within a relatively short time frame. The study of its structure reveals unique characteristics that make the influenza virus one of the most dangerous pathogens on the planet. The characteristics of influenza, including its membrane composition and the efficient way it “hijacks” healthy cells to use as its host, sets it apart from some more common viruses. The complex, reinforced structure of influenza has made it relatively hard to battle when an epidemic breaks out within a population.

Scientists believe the structure of the influenza virus is unique in that it is an enveloped virus, or a virus that “steals” the membrane of its host cell before it replicates. While other viruses exhibit properties similar to this, the influenza virus is very efficient at using this tactic to overtake a healthy cell. Once the virus has compiled its membrane structure, it has a unique assortment of “spikes,” or glycoproteins, that connect to sugars called hemagluten (HA) and neuraminidase (NA). The specific way in which these sugars are arranged within the structure of influenza determine which general strain it is, A B or C.


The influenza virus is astonishingly reinforced. Beneath its lipid membrane, another protective layer is found. The viral matrix protein, or M1 protein, forms a hard to penetrate shell that protects it from would-be attackers. This shell protects the most important components of the influenza virus structure, the viral RNA. When a virus attacks a healthy host cell, it injects the genetic instructions contained within its RNA into the healthy cell’s enzyme “factory." It then uses these enzymes to carry out its ultimate goal of making replications of itself.

This process of replication continues until it is halted either by pharmaceuticals or the host’s immune system. The mutating and reinforced structure of influenza can paralyze the immune system because it essentially becomes confused and overworked. Treating an influenza epidemic with broad-spectrum drugs further impairs patients' immune systems, and the virus can run rampant and cause havoc within the system. Understanding the “hijacking” step the virus uses to first envelop a virus and gain control over its enzyme synthesis is on the forefront of research into new drugs, immunizations, and alternative therapies that will help to combat emerging illness that are contributed to the virus.


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Post 3

I thought I'd better just point out that the flu they are talking about here is the one that causes symptoms similar to having a cold.

Apparently it's a big problem at the moment that a lot of people think a "stomach flu" is the main kind of flu, even though that's a misnomer ("flu" comes from influenza, which is only the cold-like bug and not related to stomach problems at all).

It becomes a problem when they get the medicines mixed up or report the wrong thing to the doctor, thinking she will understand that "flu symptoms" means stomach sickness and pain, and not the actual symptoms of influenza.

Post 2

@croydon - Unfortunately, while they have superficial similarities, they aren't really the same at all. What we think of as a generic virus that causes the flu is actually a lot of variations because, as it says in the article, the virus mutates so fast. That's why you have to get a new flu shot every season, in order to protect you from all the new mutations in flu structure.

It's also why the flu is so much more dangerous than HIV in the long run. We are very close to being able to get rid of HIV. In fact, they could eliminate it now, since they have drugs that make it not-contagious. Unfortunately, they are expensive and it's so

wide spread it's impossible to rely on them alone so they keep searching.

Even if they found a cure to a single flu virus, it would keep mutating, in us and in other animals. And it spreads much faster than HIV. If we get unlucky and the wrong kind of mutation happens, there's no reason we wouldn't have the same issue they had with the Spanish flu that killed millions of people.

Post 1

Isn't this the same way the HIV virus works? That's why it took them so long to isolate it, because it goes into the human cells and destroys them from within so that it can replicate.

That makes it very difficult for the body to get rid of it, since it looks like a normal cell. I didn't realize viral influenza did the same thing, but I think they are pretty close to getting rid of HIV now, so shouldn't they be able to start getting to work on getting rid of the flu virus as well?

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