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How Ebola Works


How Ebola Operates
A microbiologist peers out from a Biosafety Level 4 laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. The CDC's Special Pathogens Branch works with BSL-4 viruses.
A microbiologist peers out from a Biosafety Level 4 laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. The CDC's Special Pathogens Branch works with BSL-4 viruses.

Each strain of the Ebola virus operates pretty similarly. In fact, they work in standard virus fashion (see How Viruses Work for details), hanging around in some sort of reservoir or host and waiting for a vulnerable cell to come along so they can infect it. And while scientists don't know all the details of how Ebola works in the body, they have compiled a handful of facts.

  1. The Ebola virus is most closely related to the viruses that cause measles and mumps, the paramyxovirus family.
  2. The genetic information stored in the RNA codes for only seven proteins (the molecules in the cell do most of the work in the organism), as compared to about 20,000 for humans.
  3. One of these proteins is suspected to be the superpower of the villainous Ebola: glycoprotein. One version of this protein binds to host cells, so the virus can enter and replicate, and the other version is released from infected cells and may play a role in suppressing the immune system.
  4. The virus is pretty impartial and will infect a wide range of cell types in our bodies, but early on, Ebola typically invades cells associated with our immune systems, namely monocytes, macrophages and dendritic cells. After that early infection, it travels to the lymph nodes, spleen and liver through the blood.

Just like other viruses, once Ebola infects our cells, it triggers the release of a bunch of different types of chemicals that cause the terrible symptoms associated with the disease (more on those later).

As we learn more about how Ebola works in our bodies, we can start to develop treatment for the disease and vaccines. But this is easier said than done. I mean ... would you want to be doing research on this disease? The dangers of working with this virus make learning more about it quite challenging. Scientists have to be well protected and work in Biosafety Level 4 laboratories (see sidebar), but even with that, they still risk their lives to gain an understanding of Ebola. Getting ahold of the virus can be challenging, too. Unless there's an outbreak, scientists don't really know how to find Ebola. Where it lives while it's not wreaking havoc is still a mystery. We'll give you our best guesses next.