Viral infection begins with the binding of a virus to a specific target on the surface of the host cell, followed by viral genome delivery into the host and a continuation of the infection process. Before binding occurs, the virus must first find its receptor by a process whose details are largely unknown. We applied high-resolution fluorescence microscopy and single-particle tracking to elucidate the target-finding process in bacteriophage λ as it infects an Escherichia coli cell. By monitoring the motion of individual viruses through the early stages of infection, we identified a unique spatial focusing process that allows a virus to arrive from its initial random landing site to its destination at the cell pole. The search process is governed by the interaction between the virus and the LamB receptors, and by the spatial organization of the receptor network on the cell surface. Our findings allowed us to develop a theoretical model for the target-finding process that reproduces the key features observed in experiment. We discuss the possible implications of our findings for the process of viral receptor-finding in higher systems.
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