« 65 is the new 77, in some; TMEM106B gene variants accelerate normal brain aging | Main | Gene-Modified Ants Give Insight into Animal Societies and Human Disease »

Big, Bigger, Giant (Viruses)

When researchers in 1992 took a closer look at Legionellosis, they came across big lumps visible in light microscopy inside amoeba, which they thought were gram positive bacteria.[1] When they found out however, that those gram positive lumps were actually viruses, they earned themselves the name Mimivirus, as they were MImicking MIcrobes quite well.[2] Since the initial realization that viruses can be just as big as some bacteria, even bigger strains have been discovered: Megavirus chilensis was the virus with the biggest capsid known until in 2013 pandoraviruses appeared on the virological landscape. Their capsids reach up to a micrometer in size and their genome is about 2.5 MB long! While that is the biggest viral genome known today, pithoviruses have the biggest capsids with around 1.5 micrometers.[3] 

Those newly discovered giant viruses are genomically diverse. A large part of their genetic information remains to be better understood, but some findings so far are already changing the way we look at the origins of cellular organisms. Mimiviruses encode proteins that resemble aminoacyl-tRNA-synthetases[4] and a rudimentary immune system against virophages.[5] Because they’re viruses however, they need a host to reproduce. The confusion starts when considering that those giant viruses might be older than cellular organisms. Hypotheses about Mimivirus’ crucial role in the development of life on earth,[6] or about viral origins of the three domains of life.[7] Others suggest that giant viruses represent remains of entire other “domains”.[8]


[1] Richard Birtles; TJ

 Rowbotham; C Storey; TJ Marrie; Didier Raoult (29 Mar 1997). "Chlamydia-like obligate parasite of free-living amoebae". The Lancet. 349: 925–926

[2] Bernard La Scola; Stéphane Audic; Catherine Robert; Liang Jungang; Xavier de Lamballerie; Michel Drancourt; Richard Birtles; Jean-Michel Claverie; Didier Raoult. (2003). "A giant virus in amoebae". Science. 299 (5615): 2033

[3] Yong, Ed (3 March 2014). "Giant virus resurrected from 30,000-year-old ice : Nature News & Comment". Nature

[4] Suzan-Monti M., La Scola B., Raoult D. (2006). "Genomic and evolutionary aspects of Mimivirus". Virus Research. 117 (1): 145–155.

[5] Levasseur A., Bekliz M., Chabriere E., Pontarotti P., La Scola B., Raoult D. MIMIVIRE is a defence system in mimivirus that confers resistance to virophage Nature 531, 249–252

[6] Siebert, Charles (2006-03-15). "Unintelligent Design". Discover Magazine

[7] Forterre, Patrick (2006). "Three RNA cells for ribosomal lineages and three DNA viruses to replicate their genomes: A hypothesis for the origin of cellular domain". PNAS. 103 (10): 3669–3674

[8] Garry Hamilton (Jan 23, 2016). "How giant viruses could rewrite the story of life on Earth". New Scientist.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>