University of Vermont

College of Medicine

Vermont Center for Immunobiology and Infectious Diseases

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Research Lab of Markus Thali, Ph.D.


Areas of interest: virus transmission at the cellular level and virus spread in supra-cellular systems - biology of membrane fusion 

Overall, we are interested in understanding how genetic and biochemical information can be transmitted from cell to cell and how such information flow determines the fate of cells, tissues and, ultimately, organisms. The main object of our studies is the retrovirus HIV-1, though we have extended our investigations to include other viruses, including influenza virus and endogenous retroviruses. For our studies, we are using virological, genetic, biochemical, and cell biological tools. We have developed considerable expertise in imaging (sub-) cellular events and are currently developing tools to investigate processes at the cell population level.

Focusing on the molecular landscape at the surface of the virus producer (i.e. infected) cells, our laboratory is investigating mechanisms that ensure successful transmission of viral particles to target cells. We found that HIV-1 exits from infected cells at membrane areas enriched in members of the tetraspanin family, and we established that these membrane scaffolds, likely by coordinating partner molecules, help secure virus transmission by preventing the fusion of producer and target cells. Consequently, the study of membrane fusion reactions has become a major focus for us. While we use sophisticated, quantitative imaging techniques to dissect events that involve cellular membranes with nanometer resolution, we are also moving our investigations into 3D cell culture systems, which allow to recapitulate aspects of the microenvironment of living tissue and thus will help us to bridge the gap between in vitro and in vivo studies.


Lab Team


Name/Email Title Phone
Lauren Bellfy Undergraduate Student (802) 656-1161
Reed Hausser
Undergraduate Student (802) 656-1161
Anna McLean
Research Technician (802) 656-1161
Mel Symeonides Graduate Student (802) 656-1161


Programs & Projects

Overall we are interested in understanding how (genetic, biochemical) information can be transmitted from cell to cell and how such information flow determines the fate of cells, tissues, and ultimately organisms. The main object of our current studies is the retrovirus HIV-1, though we also support investigations by colleagues who focus on other viruses, including influenza virus and endogenous retroviruses. Importantly, in all of our projects we collaborate more or less extensively with other scientists, both on campus and at other institutions, thus forming transient alliances to tackle emerging questions.

Multiscale analyses of HIV-1 cell-to-cell transmission

Successful dissemination of HIV-1 in infected individuals depends on efficient transmission of viral particles from infected (producer) to uninfected (target) cells. In vitro propagation studies have established that HIV-1 particles are most effectively transmitted to target cells if they bud at the so-called virological synapse (VS), a transient multiform (spatially and temporally) adhesion structure at the interface between producer and target cells. Such synaptic virus transmission is thought to also contribute to viral spread in vivo, e.g. when HIV-1 is transmitted to uninfected cells in secondary lymphoid organs of infected individuals. The events leading to the formation, maintenance, and disassembly of the VS are poorly understood, however. It remains also unclear why infected cells, which express the viral envelope glycoprotein (Env), do not always fuse with uninfected cells that carry the viral receptor, thus forming a syncytium.


Focusing on the molecular landscape at the surface of the producer cell, our laboratory, and others, have shown that HIV-1 exits from infected T lymphocytes at membrane segments that are enriched in tetraspanins, cellular scaffold proteins that are known to regulate various cell-cell fusion processes. Not unexpectedly, then, we found that their presence at the virological presynapse, together with other cellular and viral factors, facilitates fusion-less encounters between producer and target cells. While small, T cell-based syncytia do form in lymph nodes of infected individuals, it is clear that in the majority of cases transient alignments of infected and uninfected cells do not result in fusion. Because central features of HIV-1 pathogenesis, including not only virus transmission but also e.g. the establishment of latently infected cells, depend on such fusion-less encounters, we continue to investigate how various viral and cellular factors, together, regulate cell-cell fusion.

Approaches – Innovation

a) quantitative imaging, biophysical techniques

 For our investigations we are using various virological and cell biological methods. Particular emphasis has been placed on applying quantitative imaging methods, including e.g. restoration fluorescence microscopy. We have also teamed up with Pierre-Emmanuel Milhiet at the Centre de Biochimie Structurale in Montpelier, France, who does single molecule analyses (SPT) of membrane proteins, and here at UVM we helped to implement super resolution microscopy. Using this new tool, we have already successfully visualized individual budding HIV-1 particles (e.g. see Roy et al., JVI 2013).


b) 3D tissue culture systems – analyses of virus spread at the cell population level

 While we will continue to adapt sophisticated techniques that allow us to achieve nanometer resolutions with our imaging approaches, we are also moving in the opposite direction, scale-wise. It is becoming more and more evident that likely all cellular (and by extension also virological) processes are influenced by cues received from the extracellular milieu. Therefore, in collaboration with Alan Howe (at the UVM Department of Pharmacology) we are moving our quantitative imaging analyses from 2D into 3D cell culture systems, as they better recapitulate the microenvironment of living tissue. We already found, for example, that small HIV-1-induced syncytia, as they were observed in lymphoid tissue, using intravital fluorescence microscopy, by our collaborator Thorsten Mempel (at MGH/HMS in Boston), can be recapitulated and thus further analyzed in such 3D in vitro systems e.g. by time lapse imaging and tracking of infected cells over several days.

Thinking beyond viral pathogenesis

Last but not least, while our research endeavor aims at characterizing steps in the replication cycle of HIV-1 that may serve as targets for the development of anti-viral strategies, we try not to lose sight of the big picture. The traditional definition of viruses as obligate intracellular parasites clearly does not render justice to these genetic entities, whose ancestors, self-replicating RNA-based genetic elements, are thought to have predated cellular life. Irrespective of whether or not the host immune system controls their levels of replication, relatively few viruses cause disease, and it is now clear that viruses and virus-like elements played important roles not only at early stages but throughout the evolution of life. Understanding these positive, even essential functions of viruses and virus-like elements will not only be interesting per se, it will also lead to a better understanding of how some of them, under certain circumstances, can inflict harm.


Last modified May 24 2016 12:32 PM