The researchers believe the new insight could help find a cure.
New antiviral drugs that disrupt how a virus replicates itself could be designed within the next 10 years, according to research published in Thursday's Nature Communications.
The new research investigated how the genetic material of the human parechovirus, which belongs to the same family as the common cold, is packaged when it replicates itself.
Using mathematical modeling and previous research, researchers found evidence to suggest the virus relies on multiple dispersed sites across the genome that work together using a "hidden code" for the virus to replicate and assemble itself.
What's more, this gene coding is conserved across different viruses in the same family, meaning it is unlikely to mutate and change or be altered.
The picornavirus family includes the common cold, alongside polio and hand, foot and mouth disease.
The multiple sites "act together in a cooperative way to enable efficient virus formation," said professor Reidun Twarock, a mathematical biologist at the University of York who led the research.
This new understanding of how the virus spreads could pave the way to making viruses belonging to the picornavirus family less infectious, by interfering with this newly discovered internal coding and preventing them from replicating, according to the team behind the research at the Universities of York, Leeds and Helsinki.
Professor Peter Stockley at the University of Leeds said, "The coding works like the cogwheels in a Swiss watch. We now need a drug that has the same effect as pouring sand into the watch; every part of the viral mechanism could be disabled."
The findings debunk Twarock's previous assumption that this replication process happens in one specific area in the virus' genome.
"The common cold infects more than 2 billion people annually, making it one of the most successful viral pathogens, so we are excited to make this crucial step forward," Twarock said in a statement.
Many more codes to break
Some cold water has been poured on the researchers' excitement, with experts questioning the extent to which the findings can bring about a cure for the common cold.
"There is not one common cold virus. There are many, many different types of cold virus," said Dr. John Tregoning, senior lecturer in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the research.
Tregoning added that the virus being studied came low on the list of viruses that caused respiratory diseases like colds, having less impact than influenza, rhinovirus, RSV or parainfluenza.
"Even treating this one virus may not greatly reduce the overall burden of common colds," he said.