I know what you’re thinking – “We need a vaccine against this virus before it turns the entire street of Kuala Lumpur into a large statue exhibition!” While the thought of having random people being turned into central park’s decoration is absolutely horrifying, fortunately for us humans, this virus only infect a specific species of bacteria. And while Medusa (supposedly) resided in the Mediterranean, Medusavirus on the other hand was found in the hot springs of Japan by researchers from Kyoto University and Tokyo University of Science.
The discovery of this virus, which was published earlier this year in the Journal of Virology, was mind-blowing for various reasons, and obviously one of that reason has to be the fact that it can cause a living organism to harden into dormancy – after infecting its host, Acanthamoeba castellanii, the virus makes the organisms form a thick hardened shell, encasing the host into a state of abeyancy.
But from the scientific community’s perspective, this discovery was so exhilarating because the Medusavirus, is a very very large virus, earning its spot in the family of Giant viruses, specifically Nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses (NCLDVs). Some of the viruses in this family can be bigger than a typical bacterium and for a while, scientists simply thought they were bacteria. The understanding and the true discovery of giant viruses only began at the start of the 21st century but they are continually surprising researchers by blurring the boundaries between viral particles and cellular life.
From laboratory tests, it was found that the amoebic host encodes many of Medusavirus’ homologs in its genome including the major capsid protein. This suggests that the interaction between the two has existed since ancient times and they have been transferring genes between each other since the dawn of the Cambrian period. Why this is so special? Because the interaction between this virus and its host asks new questions about the origin of life, the evolution of Eukaryotic organisms and the very fundamentals of what it means to be a virus.
Are viruses alive? and also a more challenging and provocative hypothesis – Did these viruses evolved from cells?
It is fun to fantasise that viruses affected the birth of ancient Eukaryotes and scientists plan to continue to study Medusavirus with the hope of further unraveling the evolutionary history of viruses and cells.
Because of this, the Medusavirus is considered a unique NCLDV, that preserves ancient footprints of evolutionary interactions with its hosts, thus providing clues to elucidate the evolution of NCLDVs, eukaryotes, and viral-host interaction. In view of the dissimilarities with other known NCLDVs, the team proposed that Medusavirus forms a new viral family Medusaviridae.
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