Something to Sneeze At

Newly completed genome may reveal cold viruses' weaknesses.

SCIENCE MAY NOT HAVE A CURE FOR THE COMMON COLD, but now we have its playbook. In February, a team of researchers from several institutions-including UW-Madison’s Institute for Molecular Virology-revealed the genome sequences of all 99 known strains of the cold virus, the first time the viruses’ genetic mechanisms have been exposed in full. “We know a lot about the common cold virus,” says Ann Palmenberg PhD’75, a biochemistry professor who led the study, “but we didn’t know how their genomes encoded all that information. Now we do, and all kinds of new things are falling out.” For instance, scientists might find weak spots in the viruses’ genetics that new drugs can be designed to attack. But don’t shelve the Kleenex just yet: Palmenberg says cold viruses have a knack for swapping genetic sequences when they meet inside a cell. “That’s why we’ll never have a vaccine for the common cold,” she says. “Nature is very efficient at putting different kinds of paint on the viruses.”