A viral nucleus

Cell typesA unique feature of eukaryotic cells, which distinguishes them from bacteria, is the presence of a membrane-bound nucleus that contains the chromosomal DNA (illustrated; image credit). Surprisingly, a nucleus-like structure that forms during viral infection of bacteria is the site of viral DNA replication (link to paper).

During infection of Pseudomonas bacteria with the phage 2O1phi2-1, a separate compartment forms in which viral DNA replication takes place. A phage protein, gp105, makes up the outer layer of this compartment, which initially forms near one end of the cell, and then migrates to the center. The migration of the compartment takes place on a spindle made up of the tubulin-like protein PhuZ.

In addition to viral DNA, certain proteins gain entry into this compartment, including viral proteins involved in DNA and mRNA synthesis, and at least one host cell protein. Other proteins, such as those involved in translation and nucleotide synthesis, are excluded. This compartmentalization very much resembles that of the nucleus of eukaryotic cells.

Packaging of the viral DNA takes place on the surface of the viral nucleus. Empty phage capsids form at the bacterial cytoplasmic membrane, then migrate to the compartment where they attach firmly to the surface. By an unknown mechanism, DNA moves from the compartment into the capsid. Then  capsids are released from the surface to further mature in the cytoplasm. The completed phages are released from the cell upon bacterial lysis.

These fascinating observations raise a number of unanswered questions. Does infection with other phages lead to assembly of a viral nucleus? How do molecules selectively move in and out of the structure?

Perhaps the most interesting question relates to the origin of viruses and cells. According to one hypothesis, self-replicating, virus-like nucleic acids might have first appeared on Earth, followed by cells without a nucleus. Was the nucleus a viral invention?

TWiV 211: Viruses r us

On episode #211 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiV four discuss an mRNA-based influenza vaccine, and a phage tubulin that forms a filamentous array in the host cell that is needed for positioning viral DNA.

You can find TWiV #211 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

TWiM #2 – The plague, microbial virulence, and the gut microbiome

gut microbiomeOn episode #2 of This Week in Microbiology, Vincent, Cliff, and Michael review a fatal laboratory acquired Yersinia pestis infection, and how gut bacteria control body weight and metabolic activity..

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiM #2 (52 MB .mp3, 75 minutes).

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Send your microbiology questions and comments (email or mp3 file) to twim@microbe.tv or leave voicemail at 908-312-0760. You can also post articles that you would like us to discuss at microbeworld.org and tag them with twim.

Prokaryotes considered

prokaryoteAs a college biology major during the 1970s I was taught that cells in which the genetic material is separated from the cytoplasm by a nuclear membrane – such as those of animals, fungi, plants, and protists – are called eukaryotes. In contrast, the DNA of bacteria is not bounded by such a structure, and hence these microbes are called prokaryotes, a name that means ‘before the nucleus’. This concept was accepted by biologists until the late-1970s, when Carl Woese used ribosomal RNA sequences to deduce the relationships among living organisms. He found that microorganisms previously thought to be bacteria, because they have no nucleus, were no more related to bacteria than to eukaryotes. He proposed that living organisms should be classified into three lineages, now called bacteria, archaea, and eukarya. Nevertheless, the prokaryotic classification is still used by many biologists. The following letter from Elio Schaecter, sent to TWiV, explains why:

“Regarding your discussion of the term prokaryote in TWiV #93, I want to pipe in as a combatant in the “P word” wars. I am firmly in the camp of the users of the term. Although the term has carried a phylogenetic burden, meaning that it originally implied a close evolutionary relationship between the Bacteria and the Archaea, no one I know uses it in that sense now. Among biologists, the three domains model is widely accepted, in fact, not even discussed. It’s true that there are leftover people who think that the prokaryote/eukaryote divide denotes a single evolutionary cleft, but that’s simply because any concept of science takes time to filter out.

“I maintain that the term, used in a broad sense, is extraordinarily useful. In a college textbook I co-authored called “Microbe”, we used the P word some 300 times. How come? Had we not used it, we would have had to say “Bacteria and Archaea” that many times (and being parsimonious of verbiage, we eschewed that). This usage illustrates the reality that these two groups of microbes, though they likely diverged very early on in evolution, share a large number of common properties. Their sizes tend to overlap, their overall body plan is generally very similar, they often occupy the same habitats, they share many homologous genes. Presented with an EM thin section, you could not tell a typical bacterium from a typical archaeon. So, dissimilar as they may be in one sense, they are very similar in a number of important attributes. Saying “prokaryotes” is much like saying “animals” or “plants,” large groups that are extremely heterogeneous and that diverged a long time ago (although certainly not as far back as the prokaryotes and eukaryotes). I agree, there is danger in the P word being misunderstood out in the big wide world, but there is none within the family of biologists.

“Anyhow, the battle has been met and, yeah!, the victors are clearly the users of the word prokaryote. The term is found all over the place, notwithstanding the astonishing campaign waged against it. Just look at titles of recent articles in major journals.

“There is a more serious issue. Making phylogeny the overarching master of relatedness is readily justified if one thinks in these terms only. But isn’t ecology just as important to understand biological behavior and relatedness? There is a tyranny to phylogeny, which demands that you view the world of living things in terms of where they came from, not what they are doing now.”

What does this nonmenclature issue have to do with virology? According to Patrick Forterre:

The discovery of unique viruses infecting archaea also corroborates the three domains concept from the virus perspective. Indeed, most viruses infecting archaea have nothing in common with those infecting bacteria, although they are still considered as “bacteriophages” by many virologists…David Prangishvili and myself have thus suggested to classify viruses into three categories, archaeoviruses, bacterioviruses and eukaryoviruses.

Woese, C. (1977). Phylogenetic Structure of the Prokaryotic Domain: The Primary Kingdoms Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 74 (11), 5088-5090 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.74.11.5088

Prangishvili, D., Forterre, P., & Garrett, R. (2006). Viruses of the Archaea: a unifying view Nature Reviews Microbiology, 4 (11), 837-848 DOI: 10.1038/nrmicro1527

TWiV 107: Warning – this virus contains email

Hosts: Vincent Racaniello, Dickson Despommier, Alan Dove, and Rich Condit

On episode #107 of the podcast This Week in Virology, Vincent, Dickson, Alan, and Rich answer listener questions about poliovirus, social media, dengue, influenza, evolution, gel filtration, and much more.

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #107 (68 MB .mp3, 94 minutes).

Subscribe to TWiV (free) in iTunes , at the Zune Marketplace, by the RSS feed, or by email, or listen on your mobile device with Stitcher Radio.

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Weekly Science Picks

Rich – Protein Synthesis: An epic on the cellular level
Dickson – The Patchwork Mouse by Joseph R. Hixson
Alan – Bill Hammack’s engineering videos
Vincent –
Visual Science (thanks, Svetlana)

Send your virology questions and comments (email or mp3 file) to twiv@microbe.tv or leave voicemail at Skype: twivpodcast. You can also post articles that you would like us to discuss at microbeworld.org and tag them with twiv.

TWiV 93: Our infectious inbox

Hosts: Vincent Racaniello, Alan Dove, and Rich Condit

On episode #93 of the podcast This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, and Rich answer listener questions about lab procedures, prokaryotes, endogenous retroviruses, the iPad and teaching, prions, mimivirus, splitting water with viruses, and the polio outbreak in Tajikistan.

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #93 (76 MB .mp3, 105 minutes)

Subscribe to TWiV (free) in iTunes , at the Zune Marketplace, by the RSS feed, or by email, or listen on your mobile device with Stitcher Radio.

Links for this episode:

Weekly Science Picks

Alan – Southern Fried Science
Rich –
Tree of Life web project
Vincent – Dickson Despommier at Big Think

Send your virology questions and comments (email or mp3 file) to twiv@microbe.tv or leave voicemail at Skype: twivpodcast. You can also post articles that you would like us to discuss at microbeworld.org and tag them with twiv.