Dmitry Korkin: Computational Biology of Coronavirus | Lex Fridman Podcast #90 | Summary and Q&A

April 22, 2020
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Dmitry Korkin: Computational Biology of Coronavirus | Lex Fridman Podcast #90


This conversation with Dimitri Korkin explores the biology of the novel coronavirus, the potential for antiviral drugs and vaccines, and the use of computational methods to understand the virus's structure and function.

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Key Insights

  • 🔬 The 3D structure of major viral proteins and their interaction with human proteins in SARS-CoV-2 has been reconstructed, creating a map of the coronavirus and providing valuable information for researchers.
  • 🔬 Viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, are fascinating due to their ability to perform specific functions with limited material and information, leading some to wonder if they exhibit a form of intelligence.
  • ⚙️ Viruses are complex machines that can modify themselves and replicate within host cells, making them highly efficient at their tasks.
  • ⚙️ It is easier to engineer naturally occurring viruses like influenza and coronaviruses to become more dangerous, but naturally evolving viruses like those continue to be a significant concern.
  • ⚙️ Understanding the structure and function of viruses is crucial for developing antiviral drugs and vaccines, with a focus on creating universal vaccines that can target different strains of influenza or coronaviruses.
  • 🌍 The natural evolution of viruses, such as the emergence of new strains of influenza, is a major concern, but efforts are being made to limit access to dangerous viruses and prioritize their study in controlled environments.
  • 🌍 Predicting the structure and function of new proteins requires using information from existing databases and comparing them with known proteins, although establishing functions for entirely new proteins still presents challenges.
  • 🌍 Collaboration within the scientific community is essential for understanding and combating viruses, exemplified by the rapid sharing of information and the collective effort to develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.


the following is a conversation with Dimitri korkin he's a professor of bioinformatics and computational biology at WPI Worcester Polytechnic Institute where he specializes in bioinformatics of complex diseases computational genomics systems biology and biomedical data analytics I came across Dimitri's work one in February his group used the viral ... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the significance of understanding the structure and function of the novel coronavirus?

Understanding the structure and function of the novel coronavirus is crucial for developing effective antiviral drugs and vaccines. By knowing how the virus interacts with human proteins, scientists can identify potential targets for treatment and prevention strategies.

Q: How do computational methods help in understanding the structure of the virus?

Computational methods, such as homology modeling and protein structure prediction, allow scientists to analyze the sequence of the virus and compare it to known structures to infer its 3D structure. This provides valuable insights into the virus's function and potential vulnerabilities that can be targeted with drugs.

Q: How do viruses evolve and what implications does this have for antiviral drug development?

Viruses evolve through mutations, and this can impact their structure and function. Antiviral drug development must take into account the potential for viral mutations, as they can lead to drug resistance. Understanding the mechanisms behind viral evolution can help in designing drugs that target essential functions and reduce the risk of resistance.

Q: What is the role of collaboration in combating viruses like COVID-19?

Collaboration is essential in understanding and combating viruses. Scientists from different disciplines, such as bioinformatics, molecular imaging, and virology, need to work together to analyze and interpret data, develop models, and test hypotheses. Collaboration allows for a more comprehensive understanding of viruses and facilitates the development of effective treatments and prevention strategies.

Q: How do you start to figure out the 3d structure of a novel virus?

The process of figuring out the 3D structure of a novel virus starts with collecting information about the virus and its proteins. In the case of the novel coronavirus, scientists have been studying its genome and proteins to understand their functions and interactions. This information is then used to create models and predictions of the protein structure. Computational techniques, such as molecular modeling and simulation, can be used to generate these models. Additionally, experimental techniques like X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy can be utilized to validate and refine the predicted structures. The goal is to create an accurate and detailed understanding of the protein structure, which can be crucial for developing antiviral drugs and vaccines.

Q: What is the role of computational methods in understanding the structure and function of viruses?

Computational methods play a crucial role in understanding the structure and function of viruses. With the vast amount of data available from genome sequencing and protein databases, computational techniques can be used to analyze and interpret this data to gain insights into the structure and function of viral proteins. These methods include molecular modeling, molecular dynamics simulations, protein structure prediction, and virtual screening. By harnessing the power of computational algorithms and simulations, scientists can study how the viral proteins interact with human proteins, identify potential binding sites for drug development, and gain a deeper understanding of viral mechanisms. Computational methods also enable the analysis of large-scale genomic data to identify patterns and signatures of viral evolution, which can aid in the development of antiviral strategies. Overall, computational methods contribute significantly to our understanding of viruses and provide valuable insights for the development of antiviral drugs and vaccines.

Q: Can you explain the concept of viral attachment to host cells?

The attachment of a virus to host cells is a crucial step in the viral infection process. Viruses have specific proteins on their surface, such as the spike protein in the case of the novel coronavirus, that interact with receptor proteins on the surface of host cells. These receptor proteins serve as a key to unlock the entry of the virus into the host cell. In the case of the novel coronavirus, it has been found that the spike protein interacts with the ACE2 receptor on the surface of human cells, particularly in the respiratory tract. This interaction allows the virus to attach to the host cell and gain entry, leading to infection. Viral attachment is a highly specific process, as the viral proteins and host cell receptors must match or fit together like a lock and key. Understanding the process of viral attachment is crucial for developing strategies to prevent viral entry into host cells, such as the development of vaccines and antiviral drugs that target these interactions.

Q: How do viruses replicate and hijack the host cell's machinery?

Viruses have different mechanisms for replicating and hijacking the host cell's machinery, but a general outline of the process can be described. Once a virus attaches to a host cell and gains entry, it releases its genetic material, which can be DNA or RNA, into the host cell. The genetic material then hijacks the host cell's machinery, specifically the ribosomes, which are responsible for protein synthesis. The viral genetic material carries instructions for the host cell's ribosomes to produce viral proteins instead of the host cell's own proteins. These viral proteins are crucial for the replication and assembly of new viral particles. Additionally, viruses often manipulate the host cell's signaling pathways and immune responses to create an environment favorable for their replication and survival. This hijacking of the host cell's machinery allows viruses to produce new viral particles, which can then go on to infect other host cells and continue the cycle of infection. Understanding the mechanisms by which viruses hijack the host cell's machinery is essential for developing antiviral strategies that target these processes to disrupt viral replication and prevent the spread of infection.

Q: What is the significance of understanding the structure and function of viral proteins?

Understanding the structure and function of viral proteins is critical for several reasons. First, it helps us understand how viruses interact with host cells and cause infections. By studying the 3D structure of viral proteins, we can identify potential binding sites and understand the mechanisms by which they interact with host proteins. This knowledge is essential for developing antiviral drugs and vaccines that target these interactions and disrupt viral replication. Second, understanding viral protein structures can provide insights into the evolutionary relationships between different viruses and aid in the identification of potential drug targets. For example, if two viruses share similar protein structures, they are more likely to respond to similar drugs or treatments. Finally, studying viral protein structures can contribute to our fundamental understanding of protein structure and function, as viruses often exploit the same cellular processes and mechanisms as host cells. This knowledge can inform research in other areas of biology and medicine beyond virology. Overall, understanding the structure and function of viral proteins has far-reaching implications for the development of strategies to combat viral infections and advance our knowledge of cellular processes.

Q: How do viruses evolve and become more dangerous to humans?

Viruses evolve through a process known as genetic mutation, which involves changes in their genetic material, either DNA or RNA. These mutations can occur randomly during the replication of the viral genome and can result in the emergence of new strains or variants of the virus. Some mutations may confer advantages to the virus, such as enhanced ability to infect host cells or evade the host immune system. Over time, viruses with these advantageous mutations can proliferate and become more prevalent in a population. These evolutionary changes can potentially make the virus more dangerous to humans. For example, mutations that allow a virus to attach more efficiently to human cells or replicate more rapidly can increase its ability to spread and cause severe illness. Understanding the mechanisms of viral evolution and the factors that contribute to increased pathogenicity is crucial for monitoring and responding to emerging viral threats. By studying the genetic makeup of viruses and tracking their evolution, scientists can identify potential risks and develop strategies to mitigate their impact.

Q: How can computational techniques help in predicting and understanding viral evolution?

Computational techniques play a vital role in predicting and understanding viral evolution. By analyzing the genetic sequences of viruses and related strains, computational algorithms can identify patterns of genetic variation and trace the evolutionary history of different viral populations. This information can be used to reconstruct viral phylogenies or evolutionary trees, which can provide insights into the relationships between different strains and the evolutionary events that led to their divergence. Computational methods can also predict the effects of specific genetic mutations on viral phenotypes, such as virulence or drug resistance, allowing scientists to anticipate the potential impact of these mutations on viral evolution. Additionally, computational approaches can analyze large-scale genomic datasets to identify genetic signatures associated with viral adaptation, transmission, and host specificity. By integrating genomic and epidemiological data, computational models can be built to simulate viral spread and predict future evolution and transmission dynamics. Overall, computational techniques enable researchers to better understand and predict viral evolution, which has important implications for public health and the development of interventions to control and prevent viral outbreaks.

Q: How do new strains of viruses emerge and become pandemic threats?

New strains of viruses can emerge through several mechanisms. One common process is genetic reassortment or recombination, which occurs when two different strains of a virus infect the same host cell and exchange genetic material. This can lead to the emergence of novel combinations of genes, sometimes with new properties or enhanced transmissibility. Another process is antigenic shift, which involves major changes in the surface proteins of a virus, allowing it to evade the immune response of previously exposed individuals. Antigenic shift can occur when two different strains of a virus infect the same host and exchange gene segments, resulting in a novel strain with different antigenic properties. Additionally, genetic mutations during viral replication can give rise to new strains, as random changes in the viral genome can lead to altered protein structures or functions. These new strains can potentially acquire advantageous characteristics, such as increased transmissibility or virulence, leading to their spread and emergence as pandemic threats. Factors such as changes in host susceptibility, environmental conditions, and global travel also contribute to the spread and establishment of new viral strains. Understanding the mechanisms of viral emergence is essential for early detection, surveillance, and the development of strategies to control and prevent the spread of these potentially dangerous viruses.

Q: How do scientists study the capacity of modern biotechnology to alter viruses?

Scientists study the capacity of modern biotechnology to alter viruses through a variety of experimental and computational approaches. One approach is to use molecular biology techniques to introduce specific genetic modifications into viral genomes and assess their impact on viral properties, such as transmissibility or virulence. For example, scientists can use site-directed mutagenesis to introduce specific mutations into viral genomes and then study the resulting changes in protein structure or function. Other methods, such as reverse genetics, allow researchers to reconstruct a virus from its genetic sequence and manipulate specific genes or segments in a controlled laboratory setting. These techniques provide valuable insights into the potential for genetic engineering to alter viral properties. In addition, computational models and simulations can be used to predict the effects of specific genetic modifications on viral phenotypes and assess the potential risks associated with such alterations. By integrating experimental and computational approaches, scientists can gain a better understanding of the capabilities and limitations of modern biotechnology in altering viruses, which can inform discussions on ethical considerations and regulatory frameworks for this research.

Q: What are the main concerns regarding naturally occurring viruses versus engineered viruses?

The main concerns regarding naturally occurring viruses are their ability to evolve and adapt to new hosts or environmental conditions, and the potential for new strains to cause pandemics or severe outbreaks. Naturally occurring viruses have a long history of emergence and have caused significant epidemics, such as the Spanish flu in 1918 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These viruses often emerge from animal reservoirs, such as bats or birds, and can infect humans through zoonotic spillover events. The constant evolution of viruses through genetic mutations and reassortment makes it challenging to predict and prepare for new strains that may emerge. Engineered viruses, on the other hand, involve intentional modifications of viral genomes in laboratories or biotechnology settings. While there is ongoing research on the engineering of viruses for various purposes, including vaccine development and scientific understanding, there are concerns about the accidental release or deliberate misuse of engineered viruses that could pose significant risks. The potential for engineered viruses to have altered or enhanced properties, such as increased transmissibility or virulence, raises ethical and safety considerations. Balancing the need for scientific discovery and advancement with the careful oversight and regulation of such research is crucial to minimize risks and ensure responsible use.

Q: What are the factors that contribute to the contagiousness and pathogenicity of a virus?

Several factors contribute to the contagiousness and pathogenicity of a virus. Contagiousness, which refers to the ability of a virus to spread from person to person, depends on factors such as the mode of transmission, the viral load carried by an infected person, and individual behaviors that can facilitate or mitigate transmission, such as hand hygiene and social distancing. Additionally, the stability of the virus in the environment, its ability to survive on surfaces, and the presence of asymptomatic carriers can also influence its contagiousness. Pathogenicity, on the other hand, refers to the ability of a virus to cause disease in infected individuals. This depends on factors such as the specific proteins and mechanisms that the virus uses to infect and manipulate host cells, evade the immune response, and cause tissue damage. It can also be influenced by the host's immune status, age, underlying health conditions, and genetic factors. The contagiousness and pathogenicity of a virus are not always directly correlated, as some highly contagious viruses may cause mild symptoms, while others with lower transmissibility can cause severe disease. Understanding the factors that contribute to contagiousness and pathogenicity is important for implementing effective public health measures, developing targeted interventions, and monitoring the spread and impact of viral outbreaks.

Q: How does the structure of a virus relate to its contagiousness and pathogenicity?

The structure of a virus, particularly its proteins and surface features, can play a significant role in its contagiousness and pathogenicity. The proteins on the surface of a virus, such as the spike protein in the case of the novel coronavirus, are involved in the attachment and entry into host cells. These surface proteins determine the specificity and efficiency of viral attachment to host cell receptors, which can influence the contagiousness of the virus. For example, if a virus has surface proteins that readily bind to receptors in the respiratory tract, it is more likely to be transmitted through respiratory droplets and be contagious. The structure of viral proteins can also contribute to their pathogenicity by influencing their interaction with host cell proteins and immune responses. Some viral proteins may have specific regions or domains that enable them to evade or suppress the host immune system, allowing the virus to replicate and cause damage to host tissues more efficiently. The structural properties of viral proteins can be targeted by antiviral drugs and vaccines to inhibit viral entry, replication, or immune evasion. Therefore, understanding the structure-function relationships of viral proteins is essential for unraveling the mechanisms of viral pathogenesis and developing effective interventions against viral diseases.


Understanding the structure and function of viruses is of utmost importance in addressing the medical, psychological, and financial burdens caused by viral diseases. Viruses are fascinating and efficient entities that can cause devastating impacts globally, making it crucial to study their biology and develop countermeasures. Computational methods, such as bioinformatics and molecular modeling, play a critical role in understanding viral structure and function. By analyzing genetic data, predicting protein structures, and simulating interactions, computational scientists can contribute to the development of antiviral drugs and vaccines. The emergence and evolution of novel viruses pose significant challenges, both naturally occurring and engineered. Scientists must continually study and monitor them to stay ahead of potential pandemics. Collaboration and open sharing of data and knowledge within the scientific community are vital in tackling viral threats effectively.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Dimitri Korkin discusses his work in bioinformatics and computational biology, specifically in understanding the structure and function of the novel coronavirus.

  • The conversation revolves around the biology of viruses, computational methods for understanding their structure, and the potential for developing antiviral drugs and vaccines.

  • Korkin highlights the importance of collaboration and the need for a better understanding of complex genetic disorders and the immune system in the fight against viruses like COVID-19.

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