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COVID-19 : First real images of the coronavirus

After a year suffering ravages caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus worldwide, causing more than 96 million infections and more than two million deaths, we can finally know what it is like. A group of researchers from three countries has achieved, for the first time, the real image of this virus in 3D from some frozen samples. 

“It is the closest to showing the real appearance of the virus that we have achieved so far. With current technology, a more realistic image cannot be displayed”Says Peter Mindek, CTO of the Austrian company Nanographics

In reality, it is not a photograph, which is impossible to photograph a virus, or a computerized model. To obtain the image, the technique of cryoelectronic tomography, in which the frozen sample is scanned from different angles using a electronic microscope. And the data obtained is transformed into three-dimensional images using algorithms.

Three institutions from each country have participated in the process. First, the CT scan was performed in the Tsinghua University, in China. Then the data obtained were segmented by experts from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia. Finally, Nanographics, founded by scientists from the Technical University of Vienna, removed the original image noise, the rendered and you assigned optical properties and colors.

The colors are not real, but their shape is

As Nanographics explains on its website, the colors that appear in the image are not really those of the coronavirus: “For objects on a scale as small as viruses, colors do not exist in the same sense that we are familiar with them”. “The 3D images of the virus were not captured with visible light photons (which give things their colors), but with electrons. Electrons they are not associated with any color that our eyes can see. Therefore, to show a scan from an electron microscope, we have to use artificial colors ”they add.

In this sense, he points out that they chose this color scheme to better represent the shape and the different parts of the virus: “We chose bright pink for the spikes, to signify that they are the part of the virus responsible for attaching itself to cells host and infect them. The rest of the virus shows up in muted and cold colors, which suggests that a virus is not a living being”. They also chose the bright red for RNA because “it is the molecule that carries the information necessary to replicate the virus and, therefore, it can be seen as its most important part, the most living part of this parasitic molecular machine ”.

The form of the virus, on the other hand, is real: “The electronic microscope does not allow us to see the colors, because there are none, but allows us to see shapes. And thanks to the artificial colors that we add to the images, we can see even better the shapes of the virus particles ”. This finding may help in the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. “Scientists researching vaccines and cures need to know the shape of molecules. If you see it in 3D, it is easier to know how they work”Mindek maintains.