Virophage, the virus eater

22 March 2011

mavirusA second virophage has been identified. The name does not signify a virus that infects another virus – it means virus eater.

The story of virophages begins with the giant mimivirus, originally isolated from a cooling tower in the United Kingdom. It is the largest known virus, with a capsid 750 nanometers in diameter and a double-stranded DNA genome 1.2 million base pairs in length. If these statistics are not sufficiently impressive, consider that shortly after its discovery, an even larger related virus was discovered and called mamavirus. These huge viruses replicate in amoeba such as Acanthamoeba; in this host they form large, cytoplasmic ‘factories’ where the DNA replicates and new virions are assembled. While examining mamavirus infected Acanthamoeba polyphaga, investigators noted small icosahedral virions, 50 nm in diameter, within factories and in the cell cytoplasm. They called this smaller virus Sputnik. This new virus does not replicate in amoebae unless the cell is also infected with mimivirus or mamavirus. Surprisingly, infection with Sputnik reduces the yields of mamavirus, and also decreases the extent of amoebal killing by the larger virus.

The second virophage is called Mavirus (for Maverick virus – because the viral DNA is similar to the eponymous DNA transposon). Mavirus was identified in the marine phagotropic flagellate Cafeteria roenbergensis infected with – you guessed it – a giant virus, CroV.  Like Sputnik, Mavirus cannot replicate in C. roenbergensis without CroV, and it also reduces the yield of CroV particles produced. The figure shows a viral factory (VF) in C. roenbergensis surrounded by large CroV particles (white arrowhead) and the smaller Mavirus particles (white arrows).

There are other examples of viruses that depend on a second, different virus for replication. For example, satellites are small, single-stranded RNA molecules 500-2000 nucleotides in length that replicate only in the presence of a helper virus. The satellite genome typically encodes structural proteins that encapsidate the genome; replication functions are provided by the helper. Most satellites are associated with plant viruses, and cause distinct disease symptoms compared with those caused by helper virus alone. Some bacteriophages and animal viruses have satellites. E. coli bacteriophage T4 is a satellite that requires bacteriophage T2 as a helper, while the adeno-associated viruses within the Parvoviridae are satellites requiring adenovirus or herpesvirus helpers. The hepatitis delta virus genome is a 1.7 kb RNA molecule that requires co-infection with hepatitis B virus to provide capsid proteins.

The difference between Sputnik, Mavirus, and satellites is that the latter do not interfere with the replication of helper viruses. Indeed, Sputnik was termed a virophage by its discoverers because its presence impairs the reproduction of another virus. The name is derived from bacteriophage – the name means ‘bacteria eater’ (from the Greek phagein, to eat). The idea is that one virus impairs the replication of the other – ‘eating’ the other virus.

In addition to their unique effect on their helper viruses, it appears that virophages have other stories to tell. The Sputnik DNA genome contains genes related to those in viruses that infect eukaryotes, prokaryotes, and archaea. Virophages may therefore function to transfer genes among viruses. The relationship of Mavirus to DNA transposons is also intriguing. DNA transposons are a kind of ‘jumping gene’, a piece of DNA that can move within and between organisms. They are important because they can change the genetic makeup of living entities, thereby influencing evolution. It is possible that DNA transposons evolved from ancient relatives of Mavirus, which would give virophages a particularly important role in the evolution of eukaryotes.

Fischer MG, & Suttle CA (2011). A Virophage at the Origin of Large DNA Transposons. Science (New York, N.Y.) PMID: 21385722