These strange blobs are clusters of immune T cells infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) – the virus that causes AIDS. The infected cells fuse together, forming large structures known as syncitia. Scientists have discovered that one of the genes in HIV encodes a protein called Env, which encourages the fusion of infected cells. But although this cellular get-together certainly happens with cells grown in plastic dishes in the lab, it’s not clear whether it happens in infected patients. This idea was controversial for a long time, and although there was some evidence that certain types of HIV-infected cells could club together inside the body, T cells couldn’t. The latest research suggests that syncitia do form when T cells are infected with HIV inside a person. But rather than being round blobs like these, they take on a more elongated, spidery shape, which helps to spread the infection to nearby tissues.
Written by Kat Arney
BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences (the new name for the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre) the website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biomedicine. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.