Every different life form on earth can probably be infected with at least one type of virus, if not many more. Most of these viruses have not yet been discovered: just over 2,000 viral species are recognized. While the majority of the known viruses infect bacteria and eukaryotes, there are only about 50 known viruses of the Archaea, and these all have DNA genomes. The first archaeal RNA viruses might have been recently discovered in a hot, acidic spring in Yellowstone National Park.
Archaea are single-cell organisms that are similar in size and shape to bacteria, but are evolutionarily and biochemically quite distinct. They inhabit a broad range of environments including those with extreme conditions such as high temperature, acidity, and salinity. Identification of archaeal RNA viruses is important because their study could provide information about the ancestors of RNA viruses that infect eukaryotes. Direct sequencing of viral communities from the environment, known as viral metagenomics, is one approach being taken to discover archaeal viruses.
The acidic (pH <4) and hot (>80°C) springs in Yellowstone National Park were examined for the presence of archaeal RNA viruses because these bodies of water contain mainly Archaea. Samples were obtained from 28 different sites and extracted nucleic acids were treated with DNAase (to remove DNA genomes) and then reverse transcriptase (to copy RNA to DNA). If reverse transcription was reduced by treatment with RNAse, it was concluded that the sample contained mostly RNA. The results narrowed the sample size to three, all from Nymph Lake. New samples obtained twelve months later also showed a predominance of RNA and were used for metagenomic analysis by deep sequencing.
Analysis of the RNA viral sequences revealed coding regions for a predicted RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp), a hallmark of RNA viruses. One assembled sequence of 5,662 nucleotides, believed to be a complete viral genome, encodes a single open reading frame containing a RdRp and a putative capsid protein similar to that of the positive-strand RNA containing nodaviruses, tetraviruses, and birnaviruses. Another viral sequence encoded a protein with 70% amino acid homology to the predicted RdRp. The sequences are from a novel virus which does not belong to any known virus family.
These results clearly show that at least two related but distinct RNA viruses are present in Nymph Lake. However whether or not the hosts of these viruses are Archaea or Bacteria cannot be determined by these metagenomic analyses. What is needed to resolve this question is old-fashioned virology: isolating RNA virus particles that can infect an archaeal host and produce new infectious viruses.
B Bolduc, DP Shaughnessy, YI Wolf, EV Koonin, FF Roberto and M Young J. Virol. 2012, 86(10):5562. DOI: 10.1128/JVI.07196-11.