Built-in defences

Viral genomes embedded in the DNA of plankton may protect the microscopic sea organisms against deadly viruses.
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The virophage (red) with its associated giant virus. Image credit: Hackl et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Viruses exist in all ecosystems in vast numbers and infect many organisms. Some of them are harmful but others can protect the organisms they infect. For example, a group of viruses called virophages protect microscopic sea creatures called plankton from deadly infections by so-called giant viruses. In fact, virophages need plankton infected with giant viruses to survive because they use enzymes from the giant viruses to turn on their own genes.

A virophage called mavirus integrates its genes into the DNA of a type of plankton called Cafeteria. It lays dormant in the DNA until a giant virus called CroV infects the plankton. This suggests that the mavirus may be a built-in defense against CroV infections and laboratory studies seem to confirm this. But whether wild Cafeteria also use these defenses is unknown.

Hackl et al. show that virophages are common in the DNA of wild Cafeteria and that the two appear to have a mutually beneficial relationship. In the experiments, the researchers sequenced the genomes of four Cafeteria populations from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and looked for virophages in their DNA. Each of the four Cafeteria genomes contained dozens of virophages, which suggests that virophages are important to these plankton. This included several relatives of the mavirus and seven new virophages. Virophage genes were often interrupted by so called jumping genes, which may take advantage of the virophages the way the virophages use giant viruses to meet their own needs.

The experiments show that virophages often co-exist with marine plankton from around the world and these relationships are likely beneficial. In fact, the experiments suggest that the virophages may have played an important role in the evolution of these plankton. Further studies may help scientists learn more about virus ecology and how viruses have shaped the evolution of other creatures.