How to Make a 3D Model of a Virus

This is what viruses look like up close.
This is what viruses look like up close. (Image: Virus image by Denis Makarov from

Viruses are some of the smallest biological entities in existence, much smaller than many bacteria and far too small to be seen without very powerful microscopes. Viruses affect our lives in various ways everyday, but they are completely invisible to the naked eye. Technology has allowed us to both see and understand viruses. You can better understand these organisms by making a 3D model of an influenza virus. The project is easy, interactive and educational.

Things You'll Need

  • 5-inch styrofoam craft ball
  • Package of markers
  • Tape measure
  • Electric knife or serrated knife
  • Multicolored pipe cleaners
  • Strong craft glue
  • Three colors of push pins
  • Pen
  • Sheet of white printing paper
  • Scissors
  • Invisible tape
  • Toothpicks

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Hold the styrofoam ball. Take out any color marker and draw a triangle on the surface of the ball. Draw a straight line across the center of the ball about 5 inches long. Make a dot on the top-center of the ball above the line, then draw two lines from that dot to each end of the line, making a rounded triangle.

Cut into the styrofoam ball with the electric or serrated knife at an angle. Cut along the lines you drew previously and into the core of the ball, removing the triangular wedge. You should now be able to see inside the ball and should have a three-sided interior space. Discard the wedge and clean any debris and loose pieces from the interior space.

Color the exterior of the styrofoam ball with any color marker. On the inside of the ball, color the interior with the same color down to one inch inside of the ball on all sides. Then, choose another color of marker and color the remainder of the interior of the ball.

Take out about five of the pipe cleaners, each one a different color, and cut them in half. Glue them inside of the ball, laying flat and not sticking out, in the area that is colored differently than the exterior. Glue them in a tangled, maze-like arrangement.

Insert the push pins into the exterior of the ball all around the surface, spaced about 1/2 inch apart. Use as many as you can fit onto the ball.

Write on the white sheet of paper in small letters the following words spaced apart by several inches: RNA, envelope, Hemagglutinin, Neuraminidase. Cut out these words from the paper and attach them with tape to the toothpicks. Insert the toothpick with the "RNA" tag into the interior of the ball by the pipe cleaners. Insert the "envelope" tag into the interior in the area that is the same color as the exterior. Insert the last two tags into the exterior of the ball next to two different-colored push pins.

Tips & Warnings

  • The pipe cleaners in the center of the model represent RNA, which carries the virus's genetic information.
  • The outside color of the foam craft ball represents the envelope of the virus, which usually comprises parts of the host cell membrane. This often allows the virus to avoid detection by the host's immune system.
  • The first colored push pin represents hemagglutinin, which causes red blood cells to clump together. The second colored push pin represents neuraminidase, which is integral in releasing progeny virus particles from the surface of an infected cell. The third colored push pin represents glycoprotein spikes, which are used to attach the virus to host cell receptors.


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