Scientists Discover First Life Form Known to Eat Viruses

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Apparently, viruses are no exception to the dog-eat-dog world that is nature. In a recent study, scientists found evidence that some microscopic organisms actively feed on viruses. While this may be the first “virovoro” ever documented, many more likely exist, the team says.

In the simplest terms, viruses are incredibly tiny packets of genetic material. Although they perform many biological functions, such as replicating themselves, they need to infect and control the machinery of cells belonging to other organisms to do so – a parasitic state of being that has led to a fierce and ongoing debate about whether viruses should be considered living beings. Regardless of their exact definition, viruses play many vital roles in the life cycle of every other creature in the world, including humans.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln appear to be the first to investigate whether viruses might be on the menu. Their previous job familiarized them with chloroviruses, viruses abundant in fresh water that infect green algae. They wondered if certain aquatic organisms already relied on viruses as a source of energy.

To test their hypothesis, they first collected water samples from the pond. Then they put as many different types of microscopic beings as possible in the water. Finally, they introduced large amounts of chlorovirus into the water and simply waited a day to see if anything changed.

At the end of their experiments, they identified a kind of halter— a single-celled protozoan — that appeared to eat chloroviruses. Not only did virus populations decline in the presence of halter, but the number of protozoa grew at the same time, indicating that the microbes were using the virus as fuel. O halter it also didn’t grow when the chloroviruses weren’t around. And when the team used fluorescent green dye to mark the DNA of the chloroviruses before they entered the water, they could clearly see the “stomachs” of the chloroviruses. halter light up afterwards, seemingly confirming their viral diet.

It may not be too surprising that some smaller creatures evolved to intentionally ingest viruses. But as far as the researchers could tell, their study is the first to show that some microbes can sustain themselves on viruses alone. Your discoveries, Published at the end of last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also suggest that halter can feed on chloroviruses as effectively as other microscopic organisms can feed on small food sources such as bacteria and algae. They estimate that halter in a small pond it may be able to eat up to 10 trillion chloroviruses a day.

“[Viruses are] made of really good stuff: nucleic acids, lots of nitrogen and phosphorus,” said lead author John DeLong, associate professor of biological sciences, in a declaration released by the university. “So many things eat anything they can catch. Surely something would have learned to eat these really good raw materials.”

Far from being a simple curiosity, the team’s research could have some important implications. These viruses are already known to play a key role in their freshwater environments, as they recycle carbon and other nutrients, effectively preventing the energy provided by these nutrients from reaching other, larger forms of life. But if living things are eating these viruses, which are then eaten by larger organisms and so on, then some of the nutrients and energy that they normally recycle might instead move up the food chain.

“If this is happening on the scale we think it is, it should completely change our view of the global carbon cycle,” DeLong said.

DeLong and his team say they have since identified other microorganisms that appear capable of “virivory” in the lab. But while they suspect many creatures can feed on viruses, they plan to find out if this happens regularly in the wild. And from there, more work will be needed to learn how viróvores affect the environments that surround them.

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