These fascinating viruses may hold the key to new antiviral therapies.
Researchers are now reporting that for the first time, they have observed ‘vampire viruses,’ pathogens that latch onto other viruses to replicate themselves.
Though theoretically possible, the reality was recently unearthed in US soil samples.
Strange ‘vampire viruses’ have cropped up in soil samples in Maryland and Missouri in a scientific first.
The existence of these viruses has been known to researchers for decades — but until know, it’s been a theoretical situation, not an actual one.
However, in recent days, a team at University of Maryland, Baltimore County [UMBC] and Washington University in St. Louis have isolated the vampire species, which are caused when a bacteriophage latches onto a soil-based virus’s neck and uses its “life” to survive on its own.
UMBC biologist Tagide deCarvalho, the study’s lead author, said: “When I saw it, I was like, ‘I can’t believe this.
“‘No one has ever seen a bacteriophage – or any other virus– attach to another virus.”‘
The team of researchers in Maryland watched this interaction that involves a ‘satellite’ and ‘helper’ virus.
The strain of bacteriophage, a type of virus that infects bacteria, latched onto a soil-borne virus’s ‘neck’ – the place where the capsid joins the tail of the virus.
…The viral relationship of two pathogens is called a satellite and helper.
The satellite is the infectious strand that relies on the helper for support through its life cycle.
The team studied a sample of satellite bacteriophage (a virus that infects bacterial cells), including a species of Streptomyces bacterium (the helper) found in soil.
However, the bacteriophage typically has a gene for integration and does not directly attach to its helper.
The satellite in UMBC’s sample, named MiniFlayer by the students who isolated it, is the first known case of a satellite with no gene for integration.
Because it cannot integrate into the host cell’s DNA, it must be near its helper—named MindFlayer—every time it enters a host cell if it is going to survive.
Ivan Erill, professor of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, explains why the relationship described in this research is vampire-like in its actions:
MiniFlayer is the first satellite phage known to have lost its ability to lie dormant. Not being able to lie in wait for your helper to enter the cell poses an important challenge to a satellite phage. If you need another virus to replicate, how do you guarantee that it makes it into the cell around the same time you do?
MiniFlayer addressed this challenge with evolutionary aplomb and horror-movie creativity. Instead of lying in wait, MiniFlayer has gone on the offensive. Borrowing from both “Dracula” and “Alien,” this satellite phage evolved a short appendage that allows it to latch onto its helper’s neck like a vampire. Together, the unwary helper and its passenger travel in search of a new host, where the viral drama will unfold again. We don’t yet know how MiniFlayer subdues its helper, or whether MindFlayer has evolved countermeasures.
If the recent pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our supply of antivirals is rather limited. Research on the complex, intertwined and at times predatory nature of viruses and their satellites, like the ability of MiniFlayer to attach to its helper’s neck, has the potential to open new avenues for antiviral therapy.
This possibility of having new and effective antiviral therapies is exciting. Here’s hoping that future research involving these viruses and all others is conducted responsibly with adequate biosafety precautions and free from the influence of megalomaniacs.
This video provides a great summary of how bacteriophages normally behave.DONATE
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