Ultrastructural characterization of SARS coronavirus

Emerg Infect Dis. 2004 Feb;10(2):320-6. doi: 10.3201/eid1002.030913.


Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was first described during a 2002-2003 global outbreak of severe pneumonia associated with human deaths and person-to-person disease transmission. The etiologic agent was initially identified as a coronavirus by thin-section electron microscopic examination of a virus isolate. Virions were spherical, 78 nm in mean diameter, and composed of a helical nucleocapsid within an envelope with surface projections. We show that infection with the SARS-associated coronavirus resulted in distinct ultrastructural features: double-membrane vesicles, nucleocapsid inclusions, and large granular areas of cytoplasm. These three structures and the coronavirus particles were shown to be positive for viral proteins and RNA by using ultrastructural immunogold and in situ hybridization assays. In addition, ultrastructural examination of a bronchiolar lavage specimen from a SARS patient showed numerous coronavirus-infected cells with features similar to those in infected culture cells. Electron microscopic studies were critical in identifying the etiologic agent of the SARS outbreak and in guiding subsequent laboratory and epidemiologic investigations.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage Fluid / virology
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Humans
  • In Situ Hybridization
  • Inclusion Bodies, Viral / ultrastructure
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Microscopy, Immunoelectron
  • RNA, Viral / genetics
  • RNA, Viral / metabolism
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome / virology
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus / genetics
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus / isolation & purification
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus / physiology
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus / ultrastructure*
  • Vero Cells
  • Viral Proteins / metabolism
  • Virus Assembly


  • RNA, Viral
  • Viral Proteins