TWiV 440: I hardly noumeavirus

No problem not being nice to Dickson in this episode, because he’s absent for a discussion of a new giant virus that replicates in the cytoplasm yet transiently accesses the nucleus to bootstrap infection.

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A different kind of remote control

nucleusAmong the multitudes of eukaryotic viruses with DNA genomes, some replicate in the cell nucleus, while others avoid the nuclear bureaucracy and remain in the cytoplasm. But biology is not always so rigid: a new giant virus has been found that replicates in the cytoplasm, where it seems to recruit components of the nuclear transcription machinery (link to paper).

Noumeavirus was isolated from a pond near – where else? – Noumea airport in New Caledonia. The 200 nanometer icosahedral particles infect the amoeba Acanthamoeba castellani and have a double-stranded DNA genome of 376,207 base pairs encoding 452 proteins. Sequence comparisons revealed Noumeavirus to be a new member of the family Marseilleviridae, which  includes other previously discovered giant viruses.

Other members of the Marseilleviridae replicate in the cytoplasm of the host cell, so it was assumed that the related Noumeavirus would do the same. However an analysis of the proteins in purified virus particles revealed an absence of components of the transcriptional machinery – which is needed for ths synthesis of mRNA. RNA polymerase, for example, is readily detected in other cytoplasmic viruses such as Mimivirus and poxviruses.

If proteins involved in transcription are not present in the Noumeavirus particle, and the virus does not enter the nucleus, how are viral mRNAs produced?  It appears that early in infection, the required proteins are moved from the nucleus to sites of viral replication in the cytoplasm. When nuclear proteins were labled with green fluorescent protein, within one hour after infection they can be seen moving out of the nucleus into the cytoplasm to sites of viral replication. The nuclear integrity remains intact, as host DNA does not leave the organelle. This recruitment of nuclear proteins is transient:  after 2-4 hours proteins are no longer leaving the nucleus.

This series of events suggests that nuclear proteins needed to initiate viral mRNA synthesis are recruited from the nucleus to sites of viral replication in the cytoplasm. Once viral mRNAs are made, the viral transcriptional machinery can be assembled and the nuclear proteins are no longer needed. The authors call this ‘remote control of the host nucleus.’

Confirmation of this hypothesis will require the demonstration that nuclear proteins involved in viral mRNA synthesis are recruited to early sites of viral replication in the cytoplasm. It will also be essential to identify the mechanism by which these nuclear proteins are extracted. Perhaps one or more virion proteins, such as an abundant 150 amino acid protein of unknown function, is involved.

Other giant viruses, such as Mimivirus, package the viral transcriptional machinery in the virus particle and are independent of the cell nucleus. At the other extreme are viruses that undergo transcription and DNA synthesis entirely in the nucleus (e.g., herpesviruses). Perhaps Noumeavirus is a relic of an evolutionary transition between the two replication strategies.

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TWiV 437: Kathy’s new spindle virus

The TWiVsters reveal new giant viruses that argue against a fourth domain of life, and discovery of viruses in the oceanic basement.

You can find TWiV #437 at, or listen below.

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Forget the fourth domain of life

three domains of lifeWhen giant viruses were discovered – with genomes much larger than any previously seen – some suggested that they had descended from a fourth domain of life (the current three are bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes). Part of the reason for such a claim was the finding of homologs of bacterial and eukaryotic genes, including molecules involved in translation. Analysis of new giant viruses encoding even more components of the translation machinery has thrown cold water on the fourth domain hypothesis.

Klosneuvirus, with a 1.57 million base pair DNA genome, was discovered in a wastewater treatment plant in Austria, and three related viruses – Indivirus, Hokovirus, and Catovirus – were found in environmental samples.  Sequence analyses suggests that these viruses should be classified in a subfamily of the Mimiviridae.

The Klosneuviruses encode far more components of the translational machinery than do mimiviruses – 25 tRNAs, 19 aminoacyl tRNA synthetases, 11 initiation and elongation proteins, a chain release factor, and tRNA modifying enzymes.

Phylogenomic analyses demonstrate that the aminoacyl tRNA synthetase and translation factor genes are likely derived from protists. This finding is not compatible with the hypothesis that these viruses are derived from a fourth domain of life. It is more likely that smaller ancestors of giant viruses acquired these genes from known eukaryotes.

Why these components of the translational system have been maintained in these giant virus genomes is an excellent question. They might confer some advantage to the viruses, for example when host translation is shut off as a viral defense. Having components of the translational apparatus might allow viral protein synthesis to proceed.

Note that genes encoding ribosomal RNAs or proteins have not been found in any virus. In fact no virus encodes a complete protein synthesis machinery. Maybe they have yet to be discovered? Or perhaps these energetically costly activities are best left to the cell?


TWiV 419: The selfless gene

The TWiVrific gang reveal how integration of a virophage into the nuclear genome of a marine protozoan enhances host survival after infection with a giant virus.

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Altruistic viruses

Cafeteria roenbergensisVirophages (the name means virus eater) were first discovered to replicate only in amoeba infected with the giant mimiviruses or mamaviruses.  They reduce yields of the giant viruses, and also decrease killing of the host cell. Another virophage called mavirus has been found to integrate into the genome of its host and behaves like an inducible antiviral defense system (link to paper).

The host cell of the virophage mavirus is Cafeteria roenbergensis, Cro (pictured), a marine phagotropic flagellate, that is infected with the giant virus CroV (Cafeteria roenbergensis virus). When Cro cells are infected with a mixture of mavirus and CroV, the virophage integrates into the host cell genome. There it remains silent; the cells survive, and no virophage particles are produced. Such cells can be called lysogens, a name applied to bacteria containing integrated bacteriophage genomes, or prophages.

How does the mavirus genome integrate into the Cro cell? The viral genome encodes an integrase, an enzyme that cuts host DNA and inserts a copy of the viral genome. Retroviruses achieve the same feat via an integrase.

When Cro-mavirus lysogens are infected with CroV, the integrated mavirus genome is transcribed to RNA, the viral DNA replicates, and new virus particles are formed. These virophages inhibit the replication of CroV by 100-1000 fold. As a consequence, the host cell population survives.

These findings suggest that the virophage mavirus is altruistic: induction of the integrated genome leads to killing of the host cell, but other members of the cell population are protected. Altruism is not unknown in Nature, but how it evolved is an intriguing question.

All this work was done in a laboratory. It will be necessary to determine if integration of mavirus into Cro cells in the wild has any influence on the ecology of these organisms.

TWiV 354: The cat in the HAART

On episode #354 of the science show This Week in Virology, the esteemed doctors of TWiV review a new giant virus recovered from the Siberian permafrost, why influenza virus gain of function experiments are valuable, and feline immunodeficiency virus.

You can find TWiV #354 at

Virophage, the virus eater

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

TWiV 125 – TWiV infects FiB

icosahedron light

Hosts: Vincent Racaniello, Dickson DespommierAlan DoveRich Condit, and Marc Pelletier

This Week in Virology and Futures in Biotech join together in a science mashup to talk about a virophage at the origin of DNA transposons, and unintended spread of a recombinant retrovirus.

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #125 (59 MB .mp3, 81 minutes).

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Weekly Science Picks

Marc – JotNot
Dickson – New bunyavirus in China (NEJM)
Rich – Listening to the Deep Ocean Environment (LIDO) recording of the Hatsushima earthquake (ScienceDaily article) – thanks Bridget!
Alan –Walter and Ina: A Story of Love, War, and Science
Vincent – Icosahedral light fixture (thanks, Eric!)

Send your virology questions and comments (email or mp3 file) to, or call them in to 908-312-0760. You can also post articles that you would like us to discuss at and tag them with twiv.