Giant Viruses, Once Labeled as Bacteria, Found to Alter a Cell’s Metabolism

According to satellite images of the Earth, there are clouds of bright green flowers across the surface of lakes and oceans as algae groups start to thrive in waters rich in nutrients. From up there, the algae seem to be the main elements in the ecological tragedy happening on the planet.

Still, those single-celled organisms impacting the aquatic creatures may be affected by viruses whose genes can redesign their hosts’ metabolism.

Mistaken For Bacteria

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, a research team from Virginia Tech explained that they had discovered a significant collection of genes for metabolic cycles in a wide selection of ‘giant viruses.’

Giant viruses break the typical narrative about viruses, namely that they’re the smallest inhabitants of the microbiome, just a few genes’ worths of DNA and RNA packed into a capsule so tiny it can only be seen through an electron microscope.

As a matter of fact, giant viruses, which are ten times the size of the regular organisms with hundreds or thousands of genes, are so different from the rest of the group that when the first species was identified in 1992, scientists believed it was bacteria.

These viruses were usually missed because they are so big that they get captured in the filters experts use to separate viruses from bacteria and other bigger organisms. However, it has become clear that this type of viruses was to be found everywhere and more usually in aquatic conditions, where they contaminate single-celled organisms like algae and protozoans.

“They’re all over the biosphere. It’s just we haven’t really paid attention to them,” Frank Aylward, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, explained.

Giant Viruses Are Linked to Metabolic Pathways in Cells

Monir Moniruzzaman, the lead author of the new research, used a known giant virus as markers and patterns in the data as hints and put together genomes for 501 giant viruses, most of them taken from marine and freshwater settings.

The tea of researchers working with Moniruzzaman did not expect to find so many metabolic genes, though. Metabolism, the series of processes cells employ to extract energy from nutrients, is a feature of cellular life, which viruses do not have by definition. However, these giant viruses appeared to have genes associated with several main metabolic pathways in living cells. The genes both Moniruzzaman and Aylward discovered, included big segments of metabolic pathways, but had their own unique signature.

“It implies that the viruses have had these genes for millions of years, even billions of years, and they’re virus-specific metabolic genes,” Aylward explained.

That implies that these genes are not just genetic junk, but functioning parts the virus reloads as it manages its host. In this case, scientists explained, the implication is that the virus is changing the cell’s metabolism.

The further step is finding how giant viruses affect their environment by utilizing experimental analyses that can help researchers figure out the way these genes operate with the host’s native metabolism.

The team of scientists also intends to test the evolution of these genes in order to determine how they ended up in the viral genome, as well as when.

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