Scientists Discover Gigantic Bacteria-Eating Viruses That Blur the Line between the Living and Non-Living

It turns out there are hundreds of these bacteriophages.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The photo credit line may appear like thisnopparit/iStock

Did you know that some viruses can blur the line between the living and non-living? That is what researchers at the University of California, Berkeley discovered.

Bacteriophages

In fact, it turns out there are hundreds of these bacteriophages (entities that eat bacteria). These viruses are of a size and complexity considered typical of life.

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"We are exploring Earth's microbiomes, and sometimes unexpected things turn up. These viruses of bacteria are a part of biology, of replicating entities, that we know very little about," said in a statement Jill Banfield, a UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science and of environmental science, policy, and management.

"These huge phages bridge the gap between non-living bacteriophages, on the one hand, and bacteria and Archaea. There definitely seem to be successful strategies of existence that are hybrids between what we think of as traditional viruses and traditional living organisms."

The researchers identified all together 351 of these huge phages. And they all had genomes four or more times larger than the average genomes of viruses that prey on single-celled bacteria. Furthermore, the phages were able to edit genomes. 

"In these huge phages, there is a lot of potential for finding new tools for genome engineering," said research associate Rohan Sachdeva. "A lot of the genes we found are unknown, they don't have a putative function and may be a source of new proteins for industrial, medical, or agricultural applications."

Human disease

The new findings also have implications for human disease. 

"Some diseases are caused indirectly by phages, because phages move around genes involved in pathogenesis and antibiotic resistance," said Banfield, who is also director of microbial research at the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) and a CZ Biohub investigator.

"And the larger the genome, the larger the capacity you have to move around those sorts of genes, and the higher the probability that you will be able to deliver undesirable genes to bacteria in human microbiomes."

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