The discovery by Dr Ben Neuman has pinpointed a key step taken by the world's most dangerous viruses when they attempt to leave cells in our bodies. Understanding the way viruses transfer from cell to cell is crucial in finding ways to prevent the spread of deadly diseases.
The World Health Organisation says global outbreaks are still a major concern with 1.8 million people dying in 2010 from AIDS, which is caused by contracting the virus HIV, and recent outbreaks of SARS and avian flu have caused many deaths around the world.
Until now scientists knew that different viruses exit cells via the same route but did not know how they broke through the cell membrane.
Dr Neuman, from Reading University's School of Biological Sciences, said: "Our research looked at SARS virus, which is closely related to the new coronavirus, haemorrhagic fever viruses and close relatives of avian flu and HIV. We know that these viruses use totally different-looking 'tools' (known as matrix proteins) to unlock a cell 'door' but we made the exciting discovery that they all use the same method."
The researchers discovered all these viruses leave the cell by overloading one side of its membrane with their proteins. The matrix proteins all nestle into the membrane like little wedges, prying apart the molecules that make up the membrane and opening the cell 'door'.
Membranes are rich in phosphorous atoms, which stand out in pictures taken with an electron microscope. Comparing membranes with and without matrix proteins showed that a considerable amount of phosphorous was missing where it had been pushed aside by matrix proteins.
Dr Neuman said: "We don't know precisely what happens next but this is a big step toward understanding how particularly nasty viruses spread from one cell to another cell. Once you understand how something happens you have the potential to stop it."