Physics of Viruses

Bad Honnef Physics School

10 Sep - 15 Sep 2023


Physikzentrum Bad Honnef

Scientific organizers:

Prof. Dr. Sarah Köster, U Göttingen • Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schwarz, U Heidelberg

Viruses have always fascinated physicists due to their apparent simplicity: a small genome protected by a shell of proteins and sometimes by an additional layer of lipids. Due to their small size (typically below 100 nm), they cannot be seen in a light microscope and their discovery had to wait until the invention of the electron microscope by Ernst Ruska in the 1930s. The crystallography of virus capsids played an essential role during the birth of molecular biology in the 1950s and also led to the first theories on supramolecular complexes. Today viruses are used on a routine basis in biotechnology, for example for gene therapy or vaccination. The emergence of the new virus SARS-CoV-2 in late 2019 challenged mankind to an unprecedented degree, but at the same time, science was able to react to this global threat much more efficiently than ever before in history, including the development of vaccines in record time.

The science of viruses would not have come into existence and would not continue to advance without very important contributions from physics. In this Bad Honnef Physics School, we would like to introduce the participants to some of the highly interesting physics puzzles posed by viruses:

  • How can one build a protective shell from only a few molecules?
  • How can the virus make sure that it assembles in a robust manner in the environment of the host cell?
  • How can the virus maintain the huge counterion pressure of 50 atm inside its capsid?
  • How do viruses cross the many physical barriers in cells and tissue, including the membranes of the host cell?
  • How do viruses escape the attacks of the immune system? And how do they avoid to be physically degraded in the hostile environment outside cells?
  • How do viruses exploit the physics of their environment (turbulent air, surfaces) to spread?
  • How does virus spread play out on the population level? What is the difference between spreading in well-mixed versus heterogeneous populations?
  • How can we predict the evolutionary dynamics of viruses and protect ourselves from future challenges?
  • How can we help our immune system with physics ideas to detect and destroy viruses?

All invited speakers work on answers to these fascinating and important questions and together we will discuss new and exciting ideas how to solve these virus riddles.