The Epstein–Barr virus and its relatives in the herpesvirus family are known for their longevity.

They persist in host tissues for years, causing diseases like mononucleosis, Kaposi’s sarcoma and herpes, and are notoriously difficult to kill. University of California, Los Angeles, biophysicist Z. Hong Zhou thinks the secret to herpesviruses’ resilience may be a layer of microscopic chain mail.

Zhou and his colleagues examined the outer shells, or capsids, of a primate herpesvirus under an electron microscope and saw a pattern of interlocking protein rings. Those rings form a mesh that can withstand intense pressures and explain why herpesviruses can maintain decades-long infections.

The study, published in the October 7 issue of Structure, marks the first time anyone has been able to bring the herpesvirus structure into focus—literally. Solving the configuration of a viral capsid requires both the ability to discern individual molecules and the ability to see how those molecules fit together in the viral shell.

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