TWiV 380: Viruses visible in le microscope photonique

TWiVOn episode #380 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVeroos deliver the weekly Zika Report, then talk about a cryoEM structure of a plant virus that reveals how the RNA genome is packaged in the capsid, and MIMIVIRE, a CRISPR-like defense system in giant eukaryotic viruses.

You can find TWiV at, or you can listen below.

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Satellites – the viral kind

Hepatitis delta satellite genomeSatellites are subviral agents that differ from viroids because they depend on the presence of a helper virus for their propagation. Satellite viruses are particles that contain nucleic acid genomes encoding a structural protein that encapsidates the satellite genome. Satellite RNAs do not encode capsid protein, but are packaged by a protein encoded in the helper virus genome. Satellite genomes may be single-stranded RNA or DNA or circular RNA, and are replicated by enzymes provided by the helper virus. The origin of satellites remains obscure, but they are not derived from the helper virus.

Satellite viruses may infect plants, animals, or bacteria. An example of a satellite virus is satellite tobacco necrosis virus, which encodes a capsid protein that forms an icosahedral capsid that packages only the 1,260 nucleotide satellite RNA. The helper virus, tobacco necrosis virus, encodes an RNA polymerase that replicates its genome and that of the satellite.

Satellite RNAs do not encode a capsid protein and therefore require helper virus proteins for both genome encapsidation and replication. Satellite RNA genomes range in length from 220-1500 nucleotides, and have been placed into one of three classes. Class 1 satellite RNAs are 800-1500 nucleotide linear molecules with a single open reading frame encoding at least one non-structural protein. Class 2 satellite RNAs are linear, less than 700 nucleotides long and do not encode protein. Class 3 satellite RNAs are 350-400 nucleotide long circles without an open reading frame.

In plants, satellites and satellite viruses may attenuate or exacerbate disease caused by the helper virus. Examples of disease include necrosis and systemic chlorosis, or reduced chlorophyll production leading to leaves that are pale, yellow, or yellow-white. The symptoms induced by satellite RNAs are thought to be a consequence of silencing of host genes. For example, the Y-satellite RNA of cucumber mosaic virus causes systemic chlorosis in tobacco. This syndrome is caused by production of a small RNA from the Y-satellite RNA that has homology to a gene needed for chlorophyll biosynthesis. Production of this small RNA leads to degradation of the corresponding mRNA, causing the bright yellow leaves.

The giant DNA viruses including Acanthamoeba polyophaga mimivirus, Cafeteria roenbergensis virus, and others are associated with much smaller viruses (sputnik and mavirus, respectively) that depend upon the larger viruses for reproduction. For example, sputnik virus can only replicate in cells infected with mimivirus, and does so within viral factories. Whether these are satellite viruses or something new (they have been called virophages) has been a matter of controversy.

Like satellite viruses, sputnik and others have similar relationships with their helper viruses: they require their helper for their propagation, but their genomes are not derived from the helper, and they negatively impact helper reproduction. Others argue that the definition of satellite viruses as sub-viral agents cannot apply to these very large viruses. For example, sputnik virophage contains a circular dsDNA genome of 18,343 bp encoding 21 proteins encased in a 75 nm t=27 icosahedral capsid. Sputnik is dependent upon mimivirus not for DNA polymerase – it encodes its own – but probably for the transcriptional machinery of the helper virus. Those who favor the name virophage argue that dependence upon the cellular transcriptional machinery is a property of many autonomous viruses – the only difference is that Sputnik depends upon the machinery provided by another virus. It seems likely that a redefinition of what constitutes a satellite virus will be required to solve this disagreement.

Most known satellites are associated with plant viruses, but hepatitis delta satellite virus is associated with a human helper virus, hepatitis B virus. The genome (illustrated) is 1.7 kb – the smallest of any known animal virus – of circular single-stranded RNA that is 70% base paired and folds upon itself in a tight rod-like structure. The RNA molecule is replicated by cellular RNA polymerase II. These properties resemble those of viroid genomes. On the other hand, the genome encodes a protein (delta) that encapsidates the RNA, a property shared with satellite nucleic acids. The hepatitis delta satellite virus particle comprises the satellite nucleocapsid packaged within an envelope that contains the surface protein of the helper, hepatitis B virus.

Infection with hepatitis delta satellite virus only occurs in individuals infected with hepatitis B virus: it is globally distributed, present in about 5% of the 350 million carriers of hepatitis B virus. Acute co-infections of the two viruses can be more severe than infection with hepatitis B virus alone, leading to more cases of liver failure. In chronic hepatitis B virus infections, hepatitis delta satellite virus aggravates pre-existing liver disease, and may lead to more rapid progression to cirrhosis and death than monoinfections. Why co-infection with both viruses leads to more serious outcomes is not known.

TWiV 275: Virocentricity with Eugene Koonin

On episode #275 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent and Rich meet up with Eugene Koonin to talk about the central role of viruses in the evolution of all life.

You can find TWiV #275 at

Pithovirus: Bigger than Pandoravirus with a smaller genome

PithovirusA new virus called Pithovirus sibericum has been isolated from 30,000 year old Siberian permafrost. It is the oldest DNA virus of eukaryotes ever isolated, showing that viruses can retain infectivity in nature for very long periods of time.

Pithovirus was isolated by inoculating cultures of the amoeba Acanthamoeba castellani with samples taken in the year 2000 from 30 meters below the surface of a late Pleistocene sediment in the Kolyma lowland region. This amoeba had been previously used to propagate other giant viruses, such as Mimivirus and Pandoravirus. Light microscopy of the cultures revealed the presence of ovoid particles which were subsequently shown by electron microscopy to resemble those of Pandoravirus. Pithovirus particles are flask-shaped and slightly larger than Pandoravirus – 1.5 microns long, 500 nm in diameter, encased by a 60 nm thick membrane. One end of the virus particle appears to be sealed with what the authors call a cork (photo). This feature, along with the shape of the virus particle,  inspired the authors to name the new isolate Pithovirus, from the Greek word pithos which refers to the amphora given to Pandora. The name therefore refers both to the morphology of the virus particle and its similarity to Pandoravirus.

Although the Pithovirus particle is larger than Pandoravirus, the viral genome – which is a double-stranded molecule of DNA – is smaller, a ‘mere 610,033 base pairs’, to use the authors’ words (the Pandoravirus genome is 2.8 million base pairs in length). There are other viruses with genomes of this size packed into much smaller particles – so why is the Pithovirus particle so large? Might it have recently lost a good deal of its genome and the particle size has not yet caught up? One theory of the origin of viruses is that they originated from cells and then lost genes on their way to becoming parasitic.

We now know of viruses from two different families that have similar morphology: an amphora-like shape, an apex, and a thick electron-dense tegument covered by a lipid membrane enclosing an internal compartment. This finding should not be surprising: similar viral architectures are known to span families. The icosahedral architecture for building a particle, for example, can be found in highly diverse viral families. The question is how many viruses are built with the pithovirus/pandoravirus structure. My guess would be many, and they could contain either DNA genomes. We just need to look for them, a process, as the authors say that ‘will remain a challenging and serendipitous process’.

Despite the physical similarity with Pandoravirus, the Pithovirus genome sequence reveals that it is barely related to that virus, but more closely resembles members of the Marseillviridae, Megaviridae, and Iridoviridae. These families all contain large icosahedral viruses with DNA genomes.  Only 32% of the 467 predicted Pithovirus proteins have homologs in protein databases (this number was 61% for Mimivirus and 16% for Pandoravirus). In contrast to other giant DNA viruses, the genome of Pithovirus does not encode any component of the protein synthesis machinery. However the viral genome does encode the complete machinery needed to produce mRNAs. These proteins are present in the purified Pithovirus particle. Pithovirus therefore undergoes its entire replication cycle in the cytoplasm, much like other large DNA viruses such as poxviruses.

Pithovirus is an amazing virus that hints about the yet undiscovered viral diversity that awaits discovery. Its preservation in a permafrost layer suggests that these regions might harbor a vast array of infectious organisms that could be released as these regions thaw or are subjected to exploration for mineral and oil recovery. A detailed analysis of the microbes present in these regions is clearly needed, both by the culture technique used in this paper and by metagenomic analysis, to assess whether any constitute a threat to animals.

TWiV 261: Giants among viruses

On episode #261 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent meets up with Chantal and Jean-Michel at the first International Symposium on Giant Virus Biology in Tegernsee, Germany, to discuss their work on Mimivirus, Megavirus, and Pandoravirus.

You can find TWiV #261 at

TWiV 246: Pandora, pandemics, and privacy

On episode #246 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, Rich, and Kathy discuss the huge Pandoravirus, virologists planning H7N9 gain of function experiments, and limited access to the HeLa cell genome sequence.

You can find TWiV #246 at

We recorded this episode of TWiV as a Google hangout on air. Consequently the audio is not the same quality as you might be used to. But the tradeoff is that you can see each of us on video.


Pandoravirus, bigger and unlike anything seen before

pandoravirusThe discovery of the giant Mimivirus and Megavirus amazed virologists (and also many others). Their virions (750 nanometers) and DNA genomes (1,259,000 base pairs) were the biggest ever discovered, shattering the notions that viruses could not be seen with a light microscope, and that viral genomes were smaller than bacterial genomes. Now two even bigger viruses have been discovered, which are physically and genetically unlike any previously known viruses. They have been called Pandoraviruses.

Both new viruses were isolated by culturing environmental samples in the amoeba Acanthamoeba castellaniPandoravirus salinus was isolated from shallow marine sediment in a river at the coast of central Chile, and Pandoravirus dulcis was obtained from mud at the bottom of a freshwater pond near Melbourne, Australia. The P. salinus genome is at least 2.77 megabases in length (there is some uncertainty in the actual length due to the presence of repeated sequences at the ends of the DNA), while the P. dulcis genome is 2.47 megabases in length. The smaller P. dulcis genome is a subset of the P. salinus genome.

These new genomes are twice as large as those of previously described viruses, and bigger than the genomes of intracellular bacteria such as Tremblaya (138,927 base pairs) and Rickettsia (1,111,523 bp), some free living bacteria, and many free living Archaea.

While the huge sizes of the Pandoravirus virion and genomes are amazing, I find three other features of these viruses even more remarkable. The first is their atypical replication cycle. The virions are taken into amoebae by phagocytic vacuoles, and upon fusing with the vacuole membrane, the virion contents are released into the cytoplasm via a pore on the virion apex. Within 2-4 hours the cell nucleus is reorganized, and by 8-10 hours new particles appear where the nucleus once was. Pandoravirus DNA and virions are synthesized and assembled simultaneously, in contrast to eukaryotic DNA viruses and phages which fill pre-formed capsids with DNA. Virions are released by 10-15 hours as the cells lyse.

A second amazing feature is that most of the P. salinus open reading frames encode brand-new proteins. Of the 2,556 putative protein coding sequences in the P. salinus genome, 93% have no recognizable counterparts among known proteins. Some of the genes found in large DNA viruses are present, such as those encoding DNA polymerase and DNA-dependent RNA polymerase, and several amino acyl-tRNA synthetases, like members of the Megaviridae. Curiously, many of the Pandoravirus coding regions contain intervening sequences, which must be removed by RNA splicing. This process is known to occur only in the cell nucleus, suggesting that some Pandoravirus transcription occurs in that organelle. The lack of gene homology leads to authors to conclude that ‘no microorganism closely related to P. salinus has ever been sequenced’.

I am also impressed by what the authors describe as the ‘alien morphological features’ of the virions. The oval-shaped particles are 1 micron in length and 0.5 microns in diameter, easily visible by light microscopy. They are wrapped in a three-layered envelope with a pore at one end of the particle, and resemble nothing that has ever been seen before (see photograph).

How much bigger can viruses get? I don’t know the answer but I would guess even bigger than Pandoraviruses. The membranous Pandoravirus particle could easily accommodate even larger genomes. How big can a virus get and still be a virus? The answer to that question is easy: it is a virus as long as it requires a cell for replication.

These remarkable findings further emphasize the need for scientists to pursue their curiosity, and not only work on problems of obvious medical relevance. As the authors write,

This work is a reminder that our census of the microbial diversity is far from comprehensive and that some important clues about the fundamental nature of the relationship between the viral and the cellular world might still lie within unexplored environments.

Continuing their playful naming of giant viruses, the authors note that the name Pandoravirus reflects their ‘lack of similarity with previously described microorganisms and the surprises expected from their future study’.

The largest viral genome from a human

Mimivirus LBA111The biggest known viruses are Mimivirus (750 nanometer capsid, 1.2 million base pair DNA) and Megavirus (680 nanometer capsid, 1.3 million base pair DNA). These giant viruses have all been isolated from environmental samples, and many infect amoebae. A new Mimivirus has now been isolated from a human patient with pneumonia.

To search for giant viruses in humans, respiratory samples from 196 Tunisian patients with community-acquired pneumonia were co-cultured with the amoebae Acanthamoeba polyphaga. One sample, a bronchial aspirate, yielded a new Megavirus that was given the catchy name LBA111. The patient from which LBA111 was isolated had been hospitalized with fever, cough, shortness of breath, and bloody sputum. Serum from this patient, but not from those of 50 healthy blood donors, reacted with LBA111 proteins, indicating suggesting that this individual had been infected with the virus.

Mimivirus LBA111 is not likely to be a contaminant introduced from the laboratory in which it was isolated, because its genome sequence is original. The LBA111 genome is double-stranded DNA 1,230,522 base pairs in length, mostly closely related to the genome of Megavirus chilensis, a giant virus isolated off the coast of Chile. In addition to other differences, the LBA111 genome encodes two  tRNAs (histidine and cysteine) not present in the genome of M. chilensis.

While these findings indicate an association of Mimivirus LBA111 with human pneumonia, they do not prove that this virus is the causative agent of human disease. However, the possibility that Mimivirus causes human disease makes sense. Mimiviruses are present in soil and water where they multiply in amoebae. A known agent of human respiratory disease, Legionella pneumophila, also colonizes amoebae. Antibodies to Mimivirus, as well as Mimivirus DNA, have been found in patients with pneumoniaMimivirus should therefore be added to the list of agents that should be considered in patients with pneumonia.

TWiV 206: Viral turducken

On episode #206 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, Dickson, and Kathy discuss how the innate immune response to viral infection influences the production of pluripotent stem cells, and the diverse mobilome of giant viruses.

You can find TWiV #206 at

This year in virology

XMRVFor some time I have thought about reviewing this year’s topics on virology blog in 2001, not only to get a sense of what I thought was significant, but more importantly, to highlight areas that need more coverage. I went through all the articles I wrote in 2011, put them in subject categories, and listed them by number of articles. The results are both obvious and surprising.

I wrote most frequently about the retrovirus XMRV and its possible role in chronic fatigue syndrome and prostate cancer. This extensive coverage was warranted because we had an opportunity to learn how disease etiology is established, followed by development of therapeutics. By the end of the year we learned that XMRV does not cause human disease, but the journey to that point was highly instructive.

The next most frequently visited topic on virology blog was influenza. Writing often about this virus makes sense because it is a common human infection that occurs every year, and controlling it is a continuing goal of virology research.

There were five  posts noting the death of virologists, colleagues, or someone I thought made a substantial impact on my career.

I wrote more about poliovirus than any other virus except XMRV and influenza. Eradication of poliomyelitis continues to be difficult and faces periodic setbacks.

I only wrote three articles about topics in basic virology.

Like many others, I find the biggest viruses and their virophages compelling.

The past year saw the release of Contagion, a movie about a virus outbreak. Look for an analysis on TWiV in 2012.

The state of science education and science funding is becoming more of a concern. It is not a topic I write about often – I prefer to focus on the science of virology – but for future scientists it is extremely important.

The other posts covered a variety of topics and viruses, including HIV, human papilloma viruses, hepatitis C virus, and smallpox virus.

What have I learned from looking back? The best covered viruses – XMRV, influenza, and poliovirus – deserve the attention. I am surprised that there were so few articles on important viruses such as HIV, HCV, rotaviruses, and herpesviruses. That shortcoming will have to change. I did not write enough about basic virology. One could argue that teaching a virology course is enough – but I think that concise, informative articles on basic virology are very useful. I’ll try to do more of that in 2012. There is one topic I’d like to write less about, but over which I have little control – the passing of scientists.

Thank you for coming here to learn about virology.