Home Health Striking images of SARS-CoV-2 infected cells

Striking images of SARS-CoV-2 infected cells

High-powered microscopic images shows startlingly high SARS-CoV-2 viral loads on human respiratory surfaces.

SARS-CoV-2 virions
SARS-CoV-2 virions (red). (Ehre Lab, UNC School of Medicine)

Scientists from the UNC School of Medicine laboratory have generated striking images in respiratory tract cultures of the infectious form of the SARS-CoV-2 virus produced by infected respiratory epithelial cells.

Scientists generated these images to illustrate how intense the SARS-CoV-2 infection of the airways can be in very graphic and easily understood images.

For the study, scientists inoculated the SARS-Co-V-2 virus into human bronchial epithelial cells. They then examined the cells using scanning electron microscopy.

The images show infected ciliated cells with mucus (yellow) attached to cilia tips (blue). Cilia are the hair-like structures on the surface of airway epithelial cells that transport mucus (and trapped viruses) from the lung.

A higher power magnification image shows the structure and density of SARS-CoV-2 virions
A higher power magnification image shows the structure and density of SARS-CoV-2 virions (red) produced by human airway epithelia. (Ehre Lab, UNC School of Medicine)

A more powerful magnification image shows the structure and density of SARS-CoV-2 virions (red) produced by human airway epithelia.

This imaging research outlines the staggeringly high number of virions produced and released per cell inside the human respiratory system. The large viral burden is a source for the spread of infection to an infected individual’s various organs. It likely intervenes in the high frequency of COVID-19 transmission to other people. These images make a strong case for the use of masks by infected and uninfected individuals to limit SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

The study was conducted in collaboration with labs of Ralph Baric, Ph.D., the William R. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health, who holds a joint faculty appointment at the UNC Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Richard Boucher, MD, the James C. Moeser Eminent Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Director of the Marsico Lung Institute at the UNC School of Medicine.

Journal Reference:
  1. Camille Ehre et al. SARS-CoV-2 Infection of Airway Cells. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMicm2023328