TWiV 424: FLERVergnügen

Trudy joins the the TWiVlords to discuss new tests for detecting prions in the blood, and evidence showing that foamy retroviruses originated in the seas with their jawed vertebrate hosts at least 450 million years ago.

You can find TWiV #424 at, or listen below.

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Interview with Harmit Malik

Vincent Racaniello interviews Harmit Malik, PhD, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Harmit and his laboratory are interested in a variety of problems that are characterized by evolutionary conflict.

This video is one of 26 video interviews with eminent virologists that are part of the supplemental material for Principles of Virology, 4th Edition, published by ASM Press. Other interviews in this series can be found at this link.

TWiV 422: Watching the icosahedron drop

The TWiVestigators wrap up 2016 with a discussion of the year’s ten compelling virology stories.

You can find TWiV #422 at, or listen below.

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MicrobeTVI started my first podcast, This Week in Virology, in September 2008, together with Dickson Despommier, father of the Vertical Farm. Although I viewed the creation of a science podcast as an experiment, I was surprised when people began to listen. Since then I have created five other podcasts, scattered at different websites. Now you can find all of them at MicrobeTV.

MicrobeTV is a podcast network for people who are interested in the life sciences. More specifically, the podcasts of MicrobeTV use conversations among scientists as teaching tools. Although I have been a research scientist my entire career, I have also had opportunities to teach graduate students, medical students, and undergraduate students. A long time ago I realized that I love to teach, and my podcasts are the outside-the-classroom expression of that sentiment.

My original idea behind TWiV was to teach virology to the broader public by recording conversations among scientists. The success of this approach led me to create This Week in Parasitism, This Week in Microbiology, Urban Agriculture, and This Week in Evolution, all of which can now be found at MicrobeTV.

You may ask why I do so many podcasts. The answer is simple – because I love talking about science and teaching others about this amazing field that makes our lives better. I could not do all these podcasts without my terrific co-hosts. I am also grateful to the American Society for Microbiology for their assistance and support for many years, especially Chris Condayan and Ray Ortega and the Communications Department.

MicrobeTV is the home for all of the podcasts that I have produced (and there are more to come!). But I’d also like to use MicrobeTV as a platform to showcase other science shows. The requirements are few: you should be passionate about your subject, you should have a great relationship with your audience, and your podcast audio must be excellent. If you are interested in joining MicrobeTV, send a note to

MicrobeTV – Science Shows by Scientists.

TWiEVO: This Week in Evolution

TWiEVOTo a molecular biologist, the word ‘evolution’ evokes images of fossils, dusty rocks, and phylogenetic trees covering eons. The fields of molecular biology and evolutionary biology diverged during the twentieth century, but new experimental technologies have lead to a fusion of the two disciplines. The result is that evolutionary biologists have the unprecedented ability to evaluate how genetic change produces novel phenotypes that allow adaptation. It’s a great time to start a new podcast on evolution!

Molecular biology is an experimental approach that was born in 1953 with the discovery of the structure of DNA. Its goal is to understand how cells and organisms work at the level of biological molecules such as DNA, RNA, and proteins. Some of the experimental tools of molecular biology include recombinant DNA, nucleotide sequencing, mutagenesis, and DNA-mediated transformation. The experiments of molecular biology often involve simplified, or reductionist systems in which much of the complexity of nature is ignored. Variation in individuals, populations, and the environment are set aside. Data produced by the techniques of molecular biology can lead to decisive conclusions about cause and effect.

Evolutionary biology embraces variation, and in fact attempts to explain it. The basis for variation in organisms is usually inferred by associating phenotypes, sequences, and alleles. The problem with this approach is that alternative explanations are often plausible, and conclusions are rarely as decisive as those achieved with molecular biology. We can turn to Darwin’s finches as a good illustration of the difference between fields. Darwin hypothesized that variation in the beaks of finches was a consequence of diet, but how such variation occurred was unknown. It was not until 2004 that it was shown that beak shape and size could be controlled by two different genes.

The techniques of DNA sequencing, mutagenesis, and the ability to introduce altered DNA into cells and organisms have been the catalyst for the fusion of molecular biology and evolutionary biology into a new and far more powerful science, which Dean and Thornton call a ‘functional synthesis’. As a consequence, genotype can be definitively connected with phenotype, allowing resolution of fundamental questions in evolution that have been puzzles for many years.

Microbes are perfect subjects for study by evolutionary biologists, as they are readily manipulable and rapidly reproduce. However no organism is now very far from the eye of this new science. Subjects as diverse as insecticide resistance, coat color in mice, evolution of color vision, and much more are all amenable to scrutiny by the ‘functional synthesis’.

This Week in Evolution will cover all aspects of the functional synthesis, irrespective of organism. My co-host is Nels Elde, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah. Nels has appeared on This Week in Virology to discuss the evolution of virus-host conflict, and his lab’s story on the evolutionary battle for iron between mammalian transferrin and bacterial transferrin-binding protein was covered on This Week in Microbiology.

You can find This Week in Evolution at iTunes and at MicrobeTV.

TWiV 367: Two sides to a Coyne

On episode #367 of the science show This Week in Virology, two Coynes join the TWiV overlords to explain their three-dimensional cell culture model of polarized intestinal for studying enterovirus infection.

You can find TWiV #367 at

Exaptation: A cell enzyme becomes a viral capsid protein

Alphalipothrixvirus virionThe acquisition of a capsid is thought to be a key event in the evolution of viruses from the self-replicating genetic elements that existed during the pre-cellular stage on Earth. The origin of viral capsids has been obscure because their components are not similar to cellular proteins. The discovery that a viral capsid protein evolved from a CRISPR-associated nuclease provides insight into how viruses emerged.

Thermoproteus tenax virus 1 (TTV1) infects the hyperthemophilic archaeon Thermoproteus tenax, which grows at 86°C. The enveloped virus particles are flexible filaments 400 nm long and 40 nm in diameter (illustrated; image credit) built with four capsid proteins, TP1-TP4. The basic proteins TP1 and TP2 bind the 16 kb double-stranded DNA genome to form the nucleocapsid.

Thirty years after the discovery of TTV1, the capsid proteins remained ORFans – meaning that they had no sequence homology with viral or cellular proteins. Recently a more sensitive homology analysis revealed that TP1 is similar to Cas4, a nuclease that is a part of the prokaryotic CRISPR-Cas defense system.

Although TP1 clearly matches the Cas4 protein, it is not complete: codons at the carboxy-terminus are missing. A re-examination of the TTV1 genome sequence revealed a previously undetected open reading frame of 74 codons just downstream of the TP1 gene which are the missing C-terminal residues of the Cas4 nuclease. It is not known if this protein, called gp7, is produced in infected cells; it is not part of the virus particle.

Together the TP1 and gp7 proteins represent a full length Cas4 nuclease. TP1 is probably not catalytically active due to amino acid changes in the active site of the enzyme.

Why does TP1 lack the carboxy-terminal residues of Cas4? The amino terminus of the TP1 protein comprises a positively charged surface that might be involved in binding the viral DNA genome. The same surface in Cas4 is covered by the carboxy-terminal domain of the protein. This observation suggests that transformation of Cas4 from a nuclease into a viral capsid protein probably required removal of this shielding domain, so that the protein could bind the DNA genome.

How did a nuclease become a viral capsid protein? An ancestor of TTV1 might have encoded a Cas4-like protein with nuclease activity with a role in genome replication or repair. Mutations causing loss of nuclease activity might have been followed by truncation of the protein to expose the DNA binding domain, which then became a viral capsid protein. Support for this idea comes from the observation that a Cas4-like protein encoded in the genome of another archaeal virus, the rudivirus SIRV2, has nuclease activity.

Exaptation, a change in the function of a protein during evolution, is known to have taken place in the viral world. The case of Cas4 and TP1 shows that capsid components can evolve from proteins with a very different function.

TWiV 365: Blood, feuds, and a foodborne disease

On episode #365 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, and Kathy trace the feud over genome editing, a new virus discovered in human blood, and the origins of hepatitis A virus.

You can find TWiV #365 at

A huge host contribution to virus mutation rates

HIV-1 mutation rateThe high mutation rate of RNA viruses enables them to evolve in the face of different selection pressures, such as entering a new host or countering host defenses. It has always been thought that the sources of such mutations are the enzymes that copy viral RNA genomes: they make random errors which they cannot correct. Now it appears that a cell enzyme makes an even greater contribution the mutation rate of an RNA virus.

Deep sequencing was used to determine the mutation rate of HIV-1 in the blood of AIDS patients by searching for premature stop codons in open reading frames of viral RNA. Because stop codons terminate protein synthesis, they do not allow production of infectious viruses. Therefore they can be used to calculate the mutation rate in the absence of selection. The mutation rate calculated in this way, 0.000093 mutations per base per cell, was slightly higher than previously calculated from studies in cell culture.

When HIV-1 infects a cell, the enzyme reverse transcriptase converts its RNA genome to DNA, which then integrates into the host cell genome. Identification of stop codons in integrated viral DNA should provide an even better estimate of the mutation rate of reverse transcriptase, because mutations that block the production of infectious virus have not yet been removed by selection. The mutation rate calculated by this approach was 0.0041 mutations per base per cell, or one mutation every 250 bases. This mutation rate is 44 times higher than the value calculated from viral RNA in patient plasma (illustrated).

Sequencing of integrated viral DNA from many patients revealed that the vast majority of mutations leading to insertion of stop codons – 98% – were the consequence of editing by the cellular enzyme APOBEC3G. This enzyme is a deaminase that changes dC to dU in the first strand of viral DNA synthesized by reverse transcriptase. APOBEC3G constitutes an intrinsic defense against HIV-1 infection, because extensive mutation of the viral DNA reduces viral infectivity. Indeed, most integrated HIV proviruses are not infectious as a consequence of APOBEC3G-induced mutations. That infection proceeds at all is due to incorporation of the viral protein vif in the virus particles. Vif binds APOBEC3G, leading to its degradation in cells.

The mutation rate of integrated HIV-1 DNA calculated by this method is much higher than that of other RNA viruses. This high mutation rate is driven by the cellular enzyme, APOBEC3G. At least half of the mutations observed in plasma viral RNAs are also contributed by this enzyme.

It has always been thought that error-prone viral RNA polymerases are largely responsible for the high mutation rates of RNA viruses. The results of this study add a new driver of viral variation, a cellular enzyme. APOBEC enzymes are known to introduce mutations in the genomes of other viruses, including hepatitis B virus, papillomaviruses, and herpesviruses. Furthermore, the cellular adenosine deaminase enzyme can edit the genomes of RNA viruses such as measles virus, parainfluenza virus, and respiratory syncytial virus. Cellular enzymes may therefore play a much greater role in the generation of viral diversity than previously imagined.

Viral variation in single cells

QuasispeciesIt is well known that virus populations display phenomenal diversity. Virus populations are dynamic distributions of nonidentical but related members called a quasispecies. This diversity is restricted in single cells, but is restored within two infectious cycles.

Single cells infected with vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) were isolated using a glass microcapillary, and incubated overnight to allow completion of virus replication. Replication in a single cell imposes a genetic bottleneck, as few viral genomes are present. Virus-containing culture fluids were then subjected to plaque assay, during which 2 viral replication cycles took place. For each infected cell, 7-10 plaques were picked and used for massive parallel genome sequencing. A total of 881 plaques from 90 individual cells were analyzed in this way. Of the 532 single nucleotide differences  identified, 36 were also present in the parental virus stock.

An interesting observation was that over half of the infected cells contained multiple parental variants. However, the multiplicity of infection (MOI) that was used should have only resulted in multiple infections in 15% of the cells. The results cannot be explained by RNA recombination as this process occurs at a very low rate in VSV-infected cells. The key is that MOI only describes the infectious virus particles that are delivered to cells.  Because the particle-to-pfu ratio of VSV is high, it seems likely that many cells received both infectious and non-infectious particles. Furthermore, it is known that some RNA viruses may be transmitted to other cells in groups, either by aggregation of particles or within a membrane vesicle.

The conclusion from these results is very important: a single plaque-forming unit can contain multiple, genetically diverse particles.  Plaque purification has been used for years in virology to produce clonal virus stocks, but at least for VSV, a plaque is not produced by a single viral genome.

The 496 single nucleotide changes that were not present in the parent virus arose after the bottleneck imposed by single cell replication. Between 0 and 17 changes were identified in the 7-10 plaques isolated from each cell. The single-cell bottleneck restricted the parental virus diversity to 36 nucleotide changes. In contrast, within 2 viral generations, the viral diversity was over ten times greater (496 changes). This observation illustrates the capacity of the RNA virus genome to restore diversity after a bottleneck.

The number of changes identified in the 7-10 plaques isolated from each cell, between 0 and 17, shows that some cells produce more diverse progeny than others. At least two sources of this variation were identified. The viral yield per cell varied greatly, from 0 to over 3000 PFU. Greater virus yields means more viral RNA replication, and more change for diversity. Indeed, greater virus yields per cell was associated with more mutations in the progeny.

Another explanation for the variation in single-cell diversity comes from analysis of cell #36. This infected cell produced viruses with 17 changes not found in the parental virus, more than any other cell. One of these changes lead to a single amino acid change in the viral RNA polymerase. This amino acid change appears to increase the mutation rate of the enzyme. Similar mutators – changes that increase the error frequency – have also been described in the poliovirus RNA polymerase.

RNA viruses must carry out error-prone replication to adapt to new environments. A consequence is that RNA virus populations exist close to an error threshold beyond which infectivity is lost. How the balance is maintained is not understood. The results of this study suggest that some infected cells may produce a highly diverse population, while in others a more conserved sequence is maintained. This distribution of diversity might permit the necessary evolvability without the lethality conferred by having too many mutations.

I would be very interested to know if the conclusions of this work would be changed by the ability to determine the sequences of all the viral genomes recovered from a single infected cell. The authors note that this is not technically possible, but surely will be in the future.