Posts Tagged ‘mimivirus’

Giant Zombie Killer Virus Rises From Its 30 000 Year Grave To Kill Us All! Or Not?

27 March, 2014

I am not a fan of “Science By Hype”, which I think I have made abundantly clear via Virology News and elsewhere. Thus, I pour scorn on the “We found a structure which will lead to an AIDS vaccine”, and “We found an antibody that will cure AIDS” type of articles, WHILE at the same time, appreciating the ACTUAL science behind the hype.

If there is any, of course.

Which is why I am torn, on the subject of a giant DNA virus purportedly found in 30 000 year-old Siberian permafrost. I am also a fan of zombies, hence the title. But seriously, now: here we are, with news media and semi- and fully-serious science mags all hailing the description in PNAS, no less, of “Pithovirus sibericum“.  A giant virus, wakened from a 30 000 year sleep in Siberian permafrost, by the kiss of an amoeba. OK, by infecting an amoeba, but you see where I’m going here. Pithovirus_sibericum__Researchers_Resurrect_30_000-Year-Old_Giant_Virus___Biology___Sci-News_com So here we are, with an article from, trumpeting the discovery.  And there’s more:

“The findings have important implications in terms of public health risks related to the exploitation of mining and energy resources in circumpolar regions, which may arise as a result of global warming. “The re-emergence of viruses considered to be eradicated, such as smallpox, whose replication process is similar to Pithovirus, is no longer the domain of science fiction. The probability of this type of scenario needs to be estimated realistically.””

Yeah.  Rii-ii-ght.  Giant viruses are going to erupt from the permafrost and kill us all!  Really??


Curtis Suttle, he of oceanic metaviromes fame, is quoted as saying the following, in Ed Yong’s Nature blog:

“…people already inhale thousands of viruses every day, and swallow billions whenever they swim in the sea. The idea that melting ice would release harmful viruses, and that those viruses would circulate extensively enough to affect human health, “stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point”, he says. “I would be much more concerned about the hundreds of millions of people who will be displaced by rising sea levels.””

Amen!  In other words, just because there ARE revivable viruses in permafrost – itself no new thing, BTW – does NOT mean they will harm humans. Think about this a moment: something locked away under the surface of the ground for 30 000+ years has to SURVIVE, first; second, it has to INFECT humans if it is to cause any harm. And what evidence do we have that anything found in Siberian permafrost can do that?

None.  None whatsoever.

Think again: how many humans, and how many mammals with virus that could infect humans, were there around on the Siberian plains 30 000 years ago?

Precious few.

And what likelihood is there that any viruses that COULD infect humans, got preserved? Vanishingly small. So what COULD get released from said permafrost, as it melts with inexorable global warming? Well, phages: lots and lots of phages.

Then some plant viruses, maybe: there have been previous reports of Tomato mosaic virus found in 1999 in glacial ice from Greenland, that was between 500 – 140 000 years old – that was also supposed to be a threat, as it escaped from melting icecaps.

To tomatoes, possibly.  If they grew in seawater.

But there’s more: here we have “New Deadly Flu Viruses Reemerge from Melting Ice“, from 2006.  Here we have

“An international team [that] found flu viruses in the ice of Siberian lakes, fact that warns about the possibility that global warming may release germs locked in glaciers for decades or even centuries.”

Yah. Right.  But at the same time, considerably more worthy of alarm than Pandoraviruses. Because what our worthy French colleagues did NOT do, in their report in PNAS, was see what ELSE was in their permafrost samples. Seriously: they trawled melting ice from a core sample with amoebae ONLY.

This is the equivalent of the 2nd year prac I used to do, when we made students screen water obtained from the environment with E coli to see if they could amplify coliphages out of it.  Why did they not do a metagenomic sequence trawl, after filtering out bits of mammoth crap and cockroaches and bits of twigs??  What did they MISS?  HBVs that infected Denisovans?  And are we SURE that the virus came from that long ago?  Has the ice really remained frozen all that time – and is there not the possibility that water didn’t percolate down through cracks and pores in the permafrost, carrying the virus with it, from a more clement environment on the surface??

OK, OK, so it’s a great find, and reasonably worthy of SOME hype.  BUT: it is NOT a harbinger of doom, because most viruses will NOT survive 30 000 years worth of entombment in ice, and in any case, would NOT infect humans even if they did. AND I hate the name: “Pithovirus sibericum“?  Really??  Viruses are not named like that!  Except by French folk who find these strange “amphora-shaped” viruses, apparently.

Goodbye, Mimi – we got Mega!

11 October, 2011

Through the unlikely medium of a local online version of a local daily paper, comes the following:

“A virus found in the sea off Chile is the biggest in the world, harbouring more than 1,000 genes, surprised scientists reported on Monday. The genome of Megavirus chilensis is 6.5 percent bigger than the DNA code of the previous virus record-holder, Mimivirus, isolated in 2003. “

The relevant article is from the group led by Jean-Michel Claverie, of the Institut de Microbiologie de la Méditerranée, in Marseilles, and appears in the October 10th online issue of PNAS.

From the abstract:

An electron micrograph of Megavirus: thanks to Jean-Michel Claverie

Here, we present Megavirus chilensis, a giant virus isolated off the coast of Chile, but capable of replicating in fresh water acanthamoeba. Its 1,259,197-bp genome is the largest viral genome fully sequenced so far. It encodes 1,120 putative proteins, of which 258 (23%) have no Mimivirus homologs. The 594 Megavirus/Mimivirus orthologs share an average of 50% of identical residues. Despite this divergence, Megavirus retained all of the

genomic features characteristic of Mimivirus, including its cellular-like genes. Moreover, Megavirus exhibits three additional aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase genes (IleRS, TrpRS, and AsnRS) adding strong support to the previous suggestion that the Mimivirus/Megavirus lineage evolved from an ancestral cellular genome by reductive evolution. The main differences in gene content between Mimivirus and Megavirus genomes are due to (i) lineages specific gains or losses of genes, (ii) lineage specific gene family expansion or deletion, and (iii) the insertion/migration of mobile elements (intron, intein).

I could argue with the choice of name as it does not conform to ICTV rules, as far as I can see – but then, neither did Mimivirus.  The important fact about the discovery – apart from the fact that it is a discovery, and therefore not amenable to hypothesising, which I rather like – is that it shows how very diverse these viruses are, and how long they must have been evolving.  For example, despite their morphological similarity, Mimi- and Megavirus genomes do not share nearly 25% of their ORFs – and sequence identities of  predicted homologous proteins are as low as 50%.

I have blogged earlier on Mimivirus structure and evolution – see “Mimivirus unveiled” – and it is nice to see that an important speculation from those earlier papers appears to be borne out here.  Namely, and quite important when considering both viral and cellular origins, is further evidence that very large viral genomes do not seem to have evolved by extensive horizontal gene transfer from cells, and in fact, the reverse may be true.  The authors state in their conclusion, in discussion of opposing views of the origin of these viruses:

“The potential origin of giant mimivirus-like genomes has been hotly debated, basically opposing two views. One is depicting Mimivirus as an extremely efficient gene “pickpocket,” explain- ing its large genome as the result of considerable HGTs from its host, bacteria, or other viruses. This scenario has been criticized in detail elsewhere [see paper for refs]. The opposite view claims that the level of HGT remained marginal (10%) and that most of the Mimivirus genes originated from an even more complex viral ancestor, itself eventually derived from an ancestral cellular genome.”

I have fond memories of an essay I won a school prize with, in about 1970, entitled “The Sea, and All that Therein Is”.  I should update it to “The Sea, and All the Viruses that Therein Are”…B-)

The largest marine virus yet

13 November, 2010

This is another welcome guest post from Gillian de Villiers, a Scientific Officer in our Vaccine Group.  This was presented as a Journal Club article recently, and fit so well into my continuing theme of “viral diversity from water” that I asked her to write it up.  Thanks Gillian!

Giant virus with a remarkable complement of genes infects marine zooplankton

Matthias G. Fischer, Michael J. Allen, William H. Wilson, and Curtis A. Suttle

PNAS published ahead of print October 25 2010

This publication covers the sequencing of the genome of Cafeteria roenbergensis virus(CroV).  This nucleocytoplasmic large DNA virus (NCLDV) is the largest marine virus described to date, and its closest relative is Acanthamoeba polyphaga Mimivirus.

Among the questions raised in this paper are:

  • what is the evolutionary origin of big viruses?
  • Did they get their genes from horizontal gene transfer (including from eukaryotes), or
  • are the “eukaryotic” genes viral in origin?

Spoiler alert: the authors do not answer this question.

Please note: this is a virus from a seawater host.  It is the largest marine virus yet found, but how hard has anyone been looking?  This ties in with Ed’s theme that we should be looking for viral diversity and interesting things in the water, because interesting things have been found there.

Some background…

This lytic virus strain was isolated off the coast of Texas in the 1990s.  The host, Cafeteria roenbergensis was originally misidentified as a Bodo species.  It is a major micro flagellate grazer (microzooplanton = major ocean predator) a 2-6um “bicoecid heterokant phagotrophic flagellate” and has been found in multiple marine environments including surface waters, deep sea sediment and hydrothermal vents.

In other words, the host is an extremely significant part of the ocean ecosystem, and has been found in most places.  The authors note that protists host the largest viruses known and that other giant viruses probably are widespread in the oceans, but so far only the Acanthamoeba-infecting giant viruses have been characterised (Acanthamoeba does not live in the ocean). Viral infections of cyanobacteria play a significant role in global oxygen production; in a similar way the viral infections by CroV may have implications for carbon and other nutrient cycling and the “food chain” in the oceans, although this is beyond the scope of the article.]


The genome is the second-largest viral genome described and at 730kb is very AT rich.  Approximately 618kb is thought to be coding with 544 predicted protein-coding genes.  At least 274 genes are expressed during infection.  22 percent of CroV CDSs (coding sequences) were probably best related to eukaryotic genes.  Most CroV CDSs had unknown function, but 32% of CDSs could be assigned a putative function.

For enzymatic functions that have not previously been reported in any other viruses you can refer to Table S1 of the Supplemental materials.

This is similar to CroV’s closest known relative, Mimivirus, where of 911 predicted genes only 300 were assigned a predicted function (see table).  Only 1/3 of their genes are common to these two viruses!  This suggests tremendous diversity within the nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses, as they may have common evolutionary origins for some genes, but not for others.  As viruses are not monophyletic (although the NCLDVs may be) and can be considered to be bags of protein that contain genetic material and share a strategy (rather than an origin) this may not be particularly surprising.  But I find it amazing that so many potential genes, and so many unique potential genes, have been found in these organisms.

Included in the genes assigned function are genes involved in translation.  CroV encodes an isoleucyl-tRNA synthetase and putative homologs of eukaryotic translation initiation factors.  22 tRNA genes and two putative tRNA-modifying enzymes: tRNA pseudouridine 5S synthase and tRNAIle lysidine synthetase were found.  Mimivirus also has four tRNA synthetases and several putative translation factors.

Cafeteria roenbergensis virus Acanthamoeba polyphaga Mimivirus
~730kb dsDNA genome ~1200kb dsDNA genome
300nm capsid 500-750nm capsid (publications differ)
Largest marine virus yet described Largest virus yet described
Second-largest virus yet described
544 predicted genes 911 predicted genes
174 genes with predicted function 300 genes with predicted function
Host: Cafeteria roenbergensis Host: Acanthamoeba castellani (amoeba)
Habitat: marine environment Habitat: soil (?freshwater)
Genes shared with Mimivirus ~ 1/3 Genes shared with CroV ~ 1/5

Similarly to other large DNA viruses a number of DNA repair genes were found.  This includes a base excision repair pathway that appears complete.  In addition crov115’s gene product is predicted to be a CPD class 1 photolyase, the first viral homologue in its class.  Crov149 appears to be part of a recently described photolyase/cytochrome group found in several bacterial phyla and euryarchaeotes, but not among established types of photolyase.  The authors suggest that the only eukaryote with this gene, Paramecium tetraurelia may have acquired it by horizontal gene transfer from a giant virus

CroV also has transcription-related genes including eight DNA-dependent RNA polymerase II subunits, six transcription factors involved in transcription initiation, elongation, and termination, a tri-functional mRNA capping enzyme, a poly (A) polymerase, as well as helicases.  Mimivirus provides considerably more genes for protein transcription and translation than most viruses, and sets up its own ‘virus factory’ in the cytoplasm of the cell.  It is possible that CroV has a similar strategy, with viral gene transcription independent of the host and occurring in the cytoplasm.

Of the three DNA topoisomerases, two are very similar to the counterparts in Mimivirus.  CroV TopoIB is the first viral homolog of the eukaryotic subfamily, but the Mimivirus TopoIB appears to be from the bacterial group.  Although the evolutionary origin appears to differ, the topoisomerases are presumably important in transcription, translation or packaging of giant virus genomes, as they appear in both CroV and Mimivirus genomes.

CroV has four inteins: self-splicing proteins.  They are found in DNA-dependent DNA polymerase B (PolB), TopoIIA, DNA-dependent RNA polymerase II subunit 2 (RPB2) and the large subunit of ribonucleotide reductase (RNR).  Inteins have previously been found in viruses infecting eukaryotes, including Mimivirus PolB.  CroV TopoIIA intein is the first case of an intein in a DNA topoisomerase gene.

Microarray analysis on the 12-18 hr infection cycle showed around half the predicted genes, and 63% of the tested genes were expressed during infection.  Work on Mimivirus and PBSC-1 showed transcription of nearly all predicted genes, so this work may underestimate the true transcriptional activity of CroV.  CroV gene expression has an early phase 0-3 hrs after infection affecting 150 genes, and a late phase affecting 124 genes 6 hrs or later post-infection including all the structural components predicted.  A conserved early promoter motif “AAAAATTGA” was identified in 35% of CDSs and is nearly identical to the Mimivirus early promoter motif “AAAATTGA”.  A promoter element for genes transcribed during the late phase of CroV infection was found that is unrelated to the putative late promoter motif in Mimivirus.

A genomic fragment involved in carbohydrate metabolism was also found.  This 38kb fragment includes enzymes for biosynthesis of 3-deoxy-D-manno-octulosonate (KDO).  This is part of the lipopolysaccharide layer in gram-negative bacteria and is found in the green alga Chlorella and the cell wall of higher plants. Ten of the enzymes involved in carbohydrate metabolism were expressed, suggesting a role in viral glycoprotein biosynthesis, suggesting the virion surface may be coated with KDO- or sialic acid-like glycoconjugates. 

There are no homologs in Mimivirus suggesting this region must have been acquired after the CroV and Mimivirus lineages split (or that the Mimivirus lineage lost it subsequently?).  This may have been acquired from bacteria, however GC content is even lower than for the rest of the CroV genome, and a number of the proteins are phylogenetically between bacterial and eukaryotic homologs.

Phylogenetics and Speculations

Phylogenetic reconstruction of NCLDV members. Redrawn and simplified from Fig. 4. The unrooted Bayesian Inference tree was generated from a 263-aa alignment of conserved regions of DNA polymerase B

CroV is an addition to the group of NCLDVs including Ascoviridae, Asfarviridae, Iridoviridae, Mimiviridae, Phycodnaviridae, Poxviridae and Marseillevirus, which are presumed to be monophyletic. CroV seems to be the closest known relative to Mimivirus although it is substantially smaller.  The topology of the NCLDV tree strongly suggests the five largest viral genomes (all mimiviruses) are more closely related to each other than to other NCLDV families.  They may have originated from an ancestral virus that was already an NCLDV that encoded more than 150 proteins.

Mimivirus is the most studied NCLDV, and is the largest.  Most Mimivirus genes have no cellular homologs and may be very ancient, with 1/3 of genes having originated through gene and genome duplication and less than 15% of the genes having potentially been acquired by horizontal gene transfer from eukaryotes and bacteria.  The CroV genome analysis is consistent with this view of giant virus evolution, with gene duplication and lineage-specific expansion contributing to the size of the CroV genome.  The 38kb carbohydrate metabolism fragment may be a potential case of large-scale horizontal gene transfer from a bacterium.  The PolB gene of CroV has high similarity with those of other marine isolates so it may represent a major group of marine viruses, that despite being virtually unknown have ecological significance.

CroV again shows overlap between large viruses and cellular life forms, adding to questions about the evolutionary history of giant viruses as well as what life itself is.

Big viruses have little viruses….

28 August, 2008

Just when you’d heard of mimiviruses, and thought it couldn’t get any stranger…the same team now bring you “mamavirus“, so named because it’s bigger!

But wait, that’s not all: apparently the new viruses have their very own “virophages” – smaller viruses which parasitise mamavirus-infected cells, and so called because they look like and have homology to bacteriophages.

And that’s still not all…Helen Pearson in the 6th August online Nature News then makes a case for viruses being considered as being alive, on the strength of this parasitism – and its detrimental effect on the larger virus, in terms of aberrant assembly, lower yield in infected cells, and so on.

Well, now…some of us have never thought otherwise, have we?  And despite all of the hype about how huge these viruses are, and how they blur the boundary between alive and dead – they don’t do they?  For all their complexity, mimi- and presumbably mamaviruses do exactly what all other viruses do: they obligately parasitise cellular organisms, and use their machinery (and especially ribosomes) to make viral components which asemble into particles.

And the news piece goes on:

“The discovery of a giant virus that falls ill through infection by another virus is fuelling the debate about whether viruses are alive.

“There’s no doubt this is a living organism,” says Jean-Michel Claverie, a virologist at the the CNRS UPR laboratories in Marseilles, part of France’s basic-research agency. “The fact that it can get sick makes it more alive.””

Ye-e-e-ssss?  Really?  And calling what is obviously a satellite virus – for all that it is a big satellite virus – a “virophage” is simply creating new terms where none are necessary.  Actually, they go one worse than that: the original article refers to the satellite as “Sputnik” throughout, in a breathtaking display of artistic licence.

But putting the outraged taxonomist in me aside, this is a truly amazing discovery, worth all of the hype: it shows that we really don’t know a lot about what is sitting in plain sight – in cooling tower water, in this case – let alone what is is sitting in deep oceans, in terms of viral biodiversity.

While the mamavirus is interesting enough, what should be called Mamavirus associated satellite virus rather than Sputnik, is even more so: satellite viruses are generally small and have very few genes, whereas this has 21 genes in a ~18 kb circular dsDNA genome, makes isometric particles 50 nm in size (which can be found within mamavirus particles), and in the words of La Scola et al.:

“…contains genes that are linked to viruses infecting each of the three domains of life Eukarya, Archaea and Bacteria. Of the 21 predicted protein-coding genes, eight encode proteins with detectable homologues, including three proteins apparently derived from APMV [Acanthamoeba polyphaga mimivirus], a homologue of an archaeal virus integrase, a predicted primase–helicase, a packaging ATPase with homologues in bacteriophages and eukaryotic viruses, a distant homologue of bacterial insertion sequence transposase DNA-binding subunit, and a Zn-ribbon protein. The closest homologues of the last four of these proteins were detected in the Global Ocean Survey environmental data set, suggesting that Sputnik represents a currently unknown family of viruses.  Considering its functional analogy with bacteriophages, we classify this virus as a virophage. The virophage could be a vehicle mediating lateral gene transfer between giant viruses.”

Fascinating indeed: this parasite upon a parasite – it replicates only in the “giant virus factory found in amoebae co-infected with APMV” – is bigger than many autonomous viruses infecting mammals, looks like it is at least partly derived from a bacterial virus in that it may integrate into its host (the mimivirus?) within a eukaryote, and may shuffle DNA around between other viruses.

I’m definitely working in the wrong field.

Virus origins: from what did viruses evolve or how did they initially arise?

19 March, 2008

This was originally written as an Answer to a Question posted to Scientific American Online; however, as what they published was considerably shorter and simpler than what I wrote, I shall post the [now updated] original here.

The answer to this question is not simple, because, while viruses all share the characteristics of being obligate intracellular parasites which use host cell machinery to make their components which then self-assemble to make particles which contain their genomes, they most definitely do not have a single origin, and indeed their origins may be spread out over a considerable period of geological and evolutionary time.

Viruses infect all types of cellular organisms, from Bacteria through Archaea to Eukarya; from E. coli to mushrooms; from amoebae to human beings – and virus particles may even be the single most abundant and varied organisms on the planet, given their abundance in all the waters of all the seas of planet Earth.  Given this diversity and abundance, and the propensity of viruses to swap and share successful modules between very different lineages and to pick up bits of genome from their hosts, it is very difficult to speculate sensibly on their deep origins – but I shall outline some of the probable evolutionary scenarios.

The graphic depicts a possible scenario for the evolution of viruses: “wild” genetic elements could have escaped, or even been the agents for transfer of genetic information between, both RNA-containing and DNA-containing “protocells”, to provide the precursors of retroelements and of RNA and DNA viruses.  Later escapes from Bacteria, Archaea and their progeny Eukarya would complete the virus zoo.

virus descent

It is generally accepted that many viruses have their origins as “escapees” from cells; rogue bits of nucleic acid that have taken the autonomy already characteristic of certain cellular genome components to a new level.  Simple RNA viruses are a good example of these: their genetic structure is far too simple for them to be degenerate cells; indeed, many resemble renegade messenger RNAs in their simplicity.

RdRp cassettes and virus evolution

RNA virus supergroups and RdRp and CP cassettes

What they have in common is a strategy which involves use of a virus-encoded RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) or replicase to replicate RNA genomes – a process which does not occur in cells, although most eukaryotes so far investigated do have RdRp-like enzymes involved in regulation of gene expression and resistance to viruses.  The surmise is that in some instances, an RdRp-encoding element could have became autonomous – or independent of DNA – by encoding its own replicase, and then acquired structural protein-encoding sequences by recombination, to become wholly autonomous and potentially infectious.

A useful example is the viruses sometimes referred to as the “Picornavirus-like” and “Sindbis virus-like” supergroups of ssRNA+ viruses, respectively.  These two sets of viruses can be neatly divided into two groups according to their RdRp affinities, which determine how they replicate.  However, they can also be divided according to their capsid protein affinities, which is where it is obvious that the phenomenon the late Rob Goldbach termed “cassette evolution” has occurred: some viruses that are relatively closely related in terms of RdRp and other non-structural protein sequences have completely different capsid proteins and particle morphologies, due to acquisition by the same RdRp module of different structural protein modules.

Given the very significant diversity in these sorts of viruses, it is quite possible that this has happened a number of times in the evolution of cellular organisms on this planet – and that some single-stranded RNA viruses like bacterial RNA viruses or bacteriophages and some plant viruses (like Tobacco mosaic virus, TMV) may be very ancient indeed.

However, other ssRNA viruses – such as the negative sense mononegaviruses, Order Mononegaviraleswhich includes the families Bornaviridae, Rhabdoviridae, Filoviridae and Paramyxoviridae, represented by Borna disease virus, rabies virus, Zaire Ebola virus, and measles and mumps viruses respectively – may be evolutionarily much younger.  In this latter case, the viruses all have the same basic genome with genes in the same order and helical nucleocapsids within differently-shaped enveloped particles.

Their host ranges also indicate that they originated in insects: the ones with more than one phylum of host either infect vertebrates and insects or plants and insects, while some infect insects only, or only vertebrates – indicating an evolutionary origin in insects, and a subsequent evolutionary divergence in them and in their feeding targets.


HIV: a retrovirus

The Retroid Cycle

The ssRNA retroviruses – like HIV – are another good example of possible cell-derived viruses, as many of these have a very similar genetic structure to elements which appear to be integral parts of cell genomes – termed retrotransposons –  and share the peculiar property of replicating their genomes via a pathway which goes from single-stranded RNA through double-stranded DNA (reverse transcription) and back again, and yet have become infectious.  They can go full circle, incidentally, by permanently becoming part of the cell genome by insertion into germ-line cells – so that they are then inherited as “endogenous retroviruses“, which can be used as evolutionary markers for species divergence.

The Retroid Cycle

Indeed, there is a whole extended family of reverse-transcribing mobile genetic elements in organisms ranging from bacteria all the way through to plants, insects and vertebrates, indicating a very ancient evolutionary origin indeed – and which includes two completely different groups of double-standed DNA viruses, the vertebrate-infecting hepadnaviruses or hepatitis B virus-like group, and the plant-infecting badna- and caulimoviruses.

Metaviruses and pseudoviruses

These are two families of long terminal repeat-containing (LTR) retrotransposons, with different genetic organisations. 

Members of family Pseudoviridae, also known as Ty1/copia elements,  have polygenic genomes of 5-9 kb ssRNA which encode a retrovirus-like Gag-type protein, and a polyprotein with protease (PR), integrase (IN) and reverse transcriptase / RNAse H  (RT) domains, in that order.  While some members also encode an env-like ORF, the 30-40 nm particles that are an essential replication intermediate have no envelope or Env protein.  They are not infectious.  Host species include yeasts, insects, plants and algae.

Metaviruses – family Metaviridae – are also known as Ty3-gypsy elements, and have ssRNA genomes of 4-10 kb in length.  They replicate via particles 45-100 nm in diameter composed of Gag-type protein, and some species have envelopes and associated Env proteins.  Gene order in the genomes is Gag-PR-RT-IN-(Env), as for retroviruses.  One virus – Drosophila melanogaster Gypsy virus – is infectious; however, as for pseudoviruses, most are not.  The genomes have been found in all lineages of eukaryotes so far studied in sufficient detail.

Both pseudovirus and metavirus genomes are clearly related to classic retroviruses; moreover, RT sequences point to metavirus RTs being most closely related to plant DNA pararetrovirus lineage of caulimoviruses.  This gives rise to the speculation that pseudoviruses and metaviruses have a common and ancient ancestor – and that two different metavirus lineages gave rise to retroviruses and caulimoviruses respectively.

All of these cellular elements and viruses have in common a “reverse transcriptase” or RNA-dependent DNA polymerase, which may in fact be an evolutionary link back to the postulated “RNA world” at the dawn of evolutionary history, when the only extant genomes were composed of RNA, and probably double-stranded RNA.  Thus, a part of what could be a very primitive machinery indeed has survived into very different nucleic acid lineages, some viral and many wholly cellular in nature, from bacteria through to higher eukaryotes.

The possibility that certain non-retro RNA viruses can actually insert bits of themselves by obscure mechanisms into host cell genomes – and afford them protection against future infection – complicates the issue rather, by reversing the canonical flow of genetic material.  This may have been happening over aeons of evolutionary time, and to have involved hosts and viruses as diverse as plants (integrated poty– and geminivirus sequences), honeybees (integrated Israeli bee paralysis virus) – and the recent discovery of “…integrated filovirus-like elements in the genomes of bats, rodents, shrews, tenrecs and marsupials…” which, in the case of mammals, transcribed fragments “…homologous to a fragment of the filovirus genome whose expression is known to interfere with the assembly of Ebolavirus”.

Rolling circle replication

There are also obvious similarities in mode of replication between a family of elements which include bacterial plasmids, bacterial single-strand DNA viruses, and viruses of eukaryotes which include geminiviruses and nanoviruses of plants, parvoviruses of insects and vertebrates, and circoviruses and anelloviruses of vertebrates.

Geminivirus particle

These agents all share a “rolling circle” DNA replication mechanism, with replication-associated proteins and DNA sequence motifs that appear similar enough to be evolutionarily related – and again demonstrate a continuum from the cell-associated and cell-dependent plasmids through to the completely autonomous agents such as relatively simple but ancient bacterial and eukaryote viruses.

geminivirus rolling circle replication

Big DNA viruses

Mimivirus particle, showing basic structure

However, there are a significant number of viruses with large DNA genomes for which an origin as cell-derived subcomponents is not as obvious.  In fact, one of the largest viruses yet discovered – mimivirus, with a genome size of greater than 1 million base pairs of DNA – have genomes which are larger and more complex than those of obligately parasitic bacteria such as Mycoplasma genitalium (around 0.5 million), despite their sharing the life habits of tiny viruses like canine parvovirus (0.005 million, or 5000 bases).

Mimivirus has been joined, since its discovery in 2003, by Megavirus (2011; 1.2 Mbp) and now Pandoravirus (2013; 1.9 -2.5 Mbp). 

The nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses or NCLDVs – including pox-, irido-, asfar-, phyco-, mimi-, mega- and pandoraviruses, among others – have been grouped as the proposed Order Megavirales, and it is proposed that they evolved, and started to diverge, before the evolutionary separation of eukaryotes into their present groupings.

It is a striking fact that the largest viral DNA genomes so far characterised seem to infect primitive eukaryotes such as amoebae and simple marine algae – and they and other large DNA viruses like pox- and herpesviruses seem to be related to cellular DNA sequences only at a level close to the base of the “tree of life”.

Variola virus, the agent of smallpox. Image courtesy Russell Kightley Media.

This indicates a very ancient origin or set of origins for these viruses, which may conceivably have been as obligately parasitic cellular lifeforms which then made the final adaptation to the “virus lifestyle”.

However, their actual origin could be in an even more complex interaction with early cellular lifeforms, given that viruses may well be responsible for very significant episodes of evolutionary change in cellular life, all the way from the origin of eukaryotes through to the much more recent evolution of placental mammals.  In fact, there is informed speculation as to the possibility of viruses having significantly influenced the evolution of eukaryotes as a cognate group of organisms, including the possibility that a large DNA virus may have been the first cellular nucleus.

In summary, viruses are as much a concept as a unitary entity: all viruses have in common, given their polyphyletic origins, is a base-level strategy for replicating their genomes.  Otherwise, their origins are possibly as varied as their genomes, and may remain forever obscure.

I am indebted to Russell Kightley for use of his excellent virus images.

Updated 12th August 2015