Michael Rossmann Described the structure of the common cold and Zika viruses

MICHAEL ROSSMANN, who has died aged 88, was a microbiologist who led the team that discovered the structure of the common cold virus; 30 years later he helped to determine the structure of the Zika virus, at a time when an epidemic had left thousands of babies with serious birth defects.

Rossmann’s work – carried out at Purdue University, Indiana – revealed why such viruses were difficult to treat. The rhinovirus that leads to the common cold is made up of 20 triangle-shaped sides, its surface marked by ridges and canyons. This “clever little strategy”, as Rossmann put it, means that the body’s antibodies cannot fit into the narrow canyons to bind with the virus.

Though the rhinovirus’s complexity – and the fact that there are more than 100 known strains implicated in the common cold – dampened hope of finding a cure, the team’s achievement raised the prospect of understanding the workings of similar viruses. These included the then newly discovered and terrifying Aids virus, as well as viruses thought to lead to hepatitis, leukaemia, and certain tumours.

In 2002 Rossmann went on to determine the structure of the dengue virus – one of a previously unexplored family that also includes West Nile virus and yellow fever.

His work with Zika deployed a technique called cryo-electron microscopy to examine the virus at near-atomic levels, giving researchers the most accurate picture to date of what they were up against, and raising the possibility that antiviral compounds could be developed.

Michael George Rossmann was born in Frankfurt on July 30 1930. His parents divorced when he was young and he lived with his mother and maternal grandparents, who were Jewish. His mother, a talented artist, worked as a journalist for a local newspaper, illustrating articles with her own sketches.

School in Germany was a frightening experience and Michael lived under the threat of anti-Semitic violence from fellow pupils. In July 1939 the family left for England and – despite not speaking English – Michael was soon flourishing under the support of his new teachers.

He qualified for a bursary to the Friends’ School in Saffron Walden, Essex, where he developed his interest in science. Moving to the Regent Street Polytechnic in 1948, he studied Physics and Mathematics and stayed on to do a Master’s degree, measuring the vapour pressures of metals.

From 1952 to 1956 Rossmann was a lecturer in Natural Philosophy at the Royal Technical College (now the University of Strathclyde) in Glasgow. At the same time he arranged to undertake a PhD – in the crystal structures of aromatic hydrocarbons – at the University of Glasgow.

He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota, returning to England in 1958 to work in the Medical Research Council’s laboratory in Cambridge. Here he began work determining the structure of haemoglobin, using techniques that would prove crucial to solving the structure of the cold virus more than 25 years later.

Grahame White