A new family of giant virus (more on that in a minute) has been discovered in a Japanese hot spring, and its effects on its host are pretty freaking terrifying – like its namesake, it turns its victims to “stone”.
Giant viruses are fairly new, with the first one being discovered in the early 2000s. Before that, scientists had classified them as bacteria because of the way they blur the line between viral particles and cellular life. They’re called giant viruses both because of their size and because of their extremely large genomes that contain many unique genes not found in other living organisms.
“The more you begin to know about these giant viruses, you will be awed by their surprisingly vivid and complex life-like systems,” said researchers in a statement. “And at the end, we end up having fundamental questions such as ‘Are viruses alive?’, and also a more challenging and provocative hypothesis such as ‘Did these viruses evolved from cells?'”
The recently discovered virus belongs, researchers say, to a totally new taxonomic family of giant viruses: Medusaviridae. Not only do they infect a type of amoeba and force it to form a thick hardened shell, encasing it into a state of dormancy, but their spikey appearance, which serves to protect their genetic material, actually resembles the mythical snake-covered head of Medusa herself.
The discovery also interests scientists studying the apparent link between viruses and the eukaryotic cells (cells that have a nucleus, for those who need the reminder) that make up fungi, plants, and animals. In the case of the Medusavirus, the virus’ genes were tangled into the genome of the host amoeba, leading researchers to wonder if the transfer could have happened long ago and inextricably linked the two.
“Viruses are thought to have played an important role in the evolution and development of life. With the discovery of this Medusavirus, we were able to observe new traces of how the giant viruses got involved in the evolution of ancient eukaryotes.”
I’m not sure what to think about the idea that the viruses capable of hurting or killing us might have been present, sneakily, from the beginning of life but it sure does sound like a great sci-fi plot!