Following this definition of life, viruses typically met the latter two tests,
but failed the first as they only produced a few structural or protective proteins
to encase themselves. This was a primary justification in classing them
as nonliving. However, recent discoveries have troubled this comfortable
notion of the solid boundary between life and nonlife. First, a variety
of parasitic bacteria have been discovered, many of which lack the key protein
enzymes needed to survive outside their host -- another bacteria.
Also, giant viruses have been discovered, which in addition to infection
related proteins, make a variety of other proteins which help it carry out
other processes. On a level of complexity they can surpass the
microbacteria, but they're clearly related to other much smaller viruses.
Now a new piece of evidence supporting that viruses may be somewhat
"alive" has been added -- viruses can catch a virus.
The discovery began more than a decade prior when researchers found a massive
parasite in an amoeba from a cooling tower in Bradford, UK. The little
creature was frozen, as it was thought to be run-of-the-mill parasitic bacteria.
However, upon closer inspection, years later the scientists recognized it as a
virus, with a gigantic genome, capable of encoding over 900 proteins. The
virus was named Acanthamoeba polyphaga mimivirus
(for mimicking microbe). It was over three times bigger than any previous
The discovery brought great excitement to some nontraditional biologists who
had long believed viruses to be living. Says Eugene Koonin of the
National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland, "It
was the cause of great excitement in virology. It crossed the imaginary
boundary between viruses and cellular organisms."
Now Professor Koonin, Jean-Michel Claverie, a virologist at the CNRS UPR
laboratories and Didier Raoult at CNRS UMR, made an even more shocking
discovery. The team in 2003 discovered an even bigger virus. They
named this one mamavirus.
The shocker came when they found that a smaller virus with just 21 genes was
associated with the new mega-virus and was infecting it. While the main virus
infected the amoeba, hijacking the amoeba's enzymes and structure to make a
protein factory, the tiny virus, which researchers named "Sputnik"
set to work hijacking this factory and making copies of itself.
The result was the mamavirus got more than just a bad cold -- it produced fewer
and deformed mamaviruses, effectively making it less infective. This
relationship of a viral parasite sickening a host is one only expected by
something living, further evidence that the big viruses might be "alive".
Jean-Michel Claverie on the mamavirus, "There’s no doubt this is a
living organism. The fact that it can get sick makes it more alive."
Mr. Koonin adds, "It infects this factory like a phage infects a
bacterium. It’s doing what every parasite can — exploiting its host for
its own replication."
Intriguingly the little virus has genes similar to those used by the mamavirus
and mimiviruses for reproduction. This leads some researchers to
speculate the virus could have been created by a failed reproduction by the big
viruses. This also supports the idea of the big viruses as being alive,
as a prevalent theory for the origin of viruses was that they came from
misreplicated bacterial DNA. Further the little virus can transform genes
between big viruses, similar to horizontal-gene-transfer in bacteria.
The new finding may have a big impact on global biology. In plankton
blooms genetic sequences have been found similar to those in the big
viruses. These blooms may be teaming with big viruses, which would likely
have been destroyed by sample collectors' bacterial filters. By impacting
the life and death of plankton the big viruses could impact not only ocean
nutrient cycles, but the global climate itself.
Curtis Suttle, an expert in marine viruses at the University of British
Columbia in Vancouver states, "These viruses could be major players in
global systems. I think ultimately we will find a huge number of novel
viruses in the ocean and other places. It emphasizes how little is known
about these organisms — and I use that term deliberately."
The full study on the topic of large plankton viruses can be viewed here, while the
study on the mamavirus can be viewed
quote: Gene Programmer: Like a computer programmer, but instead of working with bits or qubits (for the future computer programmers), you work with genes. Recode a virus to infect AIDS, cancers, meningitis, and whatever else you want.