“I think ultimately we will find a huge number of novel viruses in the ocean and other places,” Suttle says — 70% of viral genes identified in ocean surveys have never been seen before. “It emphasizes how little is known about these organisms — and I use that term deliberately.”

Everyone has been emailing me about a sweet new virus my Virus Boyfriend and his posse discovered: Sputnik.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, people thought that viruses were ‘degenerate’ forms of life. Scientists saw viruses assimilating genes from their hosts and plopping them into new hosts (ie morons/virulence factors in bacteria). And, phages easily transition from free-floating virus to prophage to virus again, so they concluded that bacteriophage were wayward bacterial genomes. Little bits of genome that declared their independence from their original cell… but still needed the original cells ribosomes and such to propagate.

This lead to the ‘escape theory’ for the origin of viruses. Bacteriophages escaped from bacteria, and eukaryotic viruses escaped from eukaryotic cells. Thus bacteriophage and say, herpes, had nothing in common except they both managed to ‘escape’ from their parent genome.

… Yeah, thats totally wrong. Bacteriophages and herpes do have related genes. Sputnik does have genes related to genes found in viruses that infect all three domains of life. Viruses are not just ‘degenerate’ or ‘wayward’ genomes. They might have helped nudge us out of the RNA World, or divided us into the Three Domains of Life– Theyve been here forever.

The point is, ‘what viruses are’ and what viruses *really* are can be two completely different things, and I think with todays technology we are inching ourselves towards a real understanding of the Viral World. The problem is, the general public and even scientists, still have the Old World view of viruses (thats a good article– 8 years old, but is a good example of what Im talking about).

Sputnik isnt just a cool virus that can ‘infect’ other viruses– its representative of all the cool stuff we dont know. All the cool stuff thats floating about, right under our noses, just waiting for someone to discover. Sputnik has a part to play in changing the publics perception of viruses and encouraging grant agencies to fund basic, exploratory research (not just virology research that will lead to a new drug/vaccine) which has the potential to uncover an entirely ‘new’ viral universe floating around us. An unexplored universe that might just be able to bail us out of BIG trouble– controlling Harmful Algal Blooms, acting as carbon sinks, antibiotics and other new medical therapies…

Sputnik represents the fact we have no friggin idea whats out there! Again, not just because it can ‘infect’ another virus, but just look at its genome– Sputnik has a few more genes than HIV-1, but we have no idea what the majority of those genes do! We call them ‘ORFans‘…

A major step in hacking this planet is understanding viruses. That aint gonna happen if people keep thinking viruses are de-evolved, dangerous, and dead. I hate personifying viruses, but Im glad the authors of this paper realize what Sputnik (and the HUGE viruses) can do:

“There’s no doubt this is a living organism,” says Jean-Michel Claverie, a virologist at the the CNRS UPR laboratories in Marseilles, part of France’s basic-research agency. “The fact that it can get sick makes it more alive.”


  1. #1 a lurker
    August 8, 2008


    But in the end, what is “life” is simply a matter of how you want to define the word. Not all that different to the question of whether or not Pluto is a planet. It is a bit arbitrary depending on whose definition wins out.

    Most traditional definitions of life include metabolism. Viruses might be biological, but they are not life according to that particular definition. If one thinks it is more useful to include viruses as life, then one needs to propose a definition that would clearly include viruses. Maybe an entity that undergoes evolution(in the biological sense of the word).

  2. #2 Yoo
    August 8, 2008

    Viruses may or may not have originally been “degenerate” forms of life, but it shouldn’t be surprising that they could have complexity comparable to multicellular life forms after going through evolution for about a billion years.

    (When did viruses first arise, anyways?)

  3. #3 Paul Lundgren
    August 8, 2008

    Fascinating article. Thank you.

  4. #4 Amplexus
    August 9, 2008

    Abbie, I agree. Viruses use enzymes and contain protein and replicate. It’s that darn metabolism though, lazy viruses!
    Why don’t they get ribozymes and work for a living? Hmm..? Even parasites metabolize!

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    August 9, 2008

    All the cool stuff thats floating about, right under our noses,

    And in our noses, too. Until we sneeze, and splatter them all over the computer screen.

    Excuse me, must just go and get a damp cloth.

  6. #6 dvizard
    August 9, 2008

    While the Sputnik discovery is certainly fascinating, I wish people would acknowledge that we will most likely never find a definitive binary distinction between “life” and “not life” and that a useful definition of “life” is probably gradual not discrete, so we would stop arguing whether or not viruses are to be defined as “living” or “dead”. It doesn’t help anyone. (Whether viruses are up-evolved and have been here forever, or de-evolved and “escaped” as in the “old” theory, is a completely different issue and an interesting question.)

  7. #7 Sili
    August 9, 2008

    Question (likely dumb):

    If there are vira that eat vira can we make them sit, rollover, play dead, and eat vira we don’t like? Say flu, the Black Plague or, Iono, Aids?

  8. #8 Becca
    August 11, 2008

    @ Sili-
    [persnickity microbiologist mode]
    Black Plauge is caused by Yersinia pestis, a gram negative bacteria, not a virus.
    [/ persnickity]
    At least, the disease we now know as the plague is definitely transmitted by Yersinia pestis , and the historically described disease epidemics were most likely caused by it.

    Although I think it survives macrophages comparatively well, it’s not even an obligate intracellular parasite.

    That said, it might very well have viruses that prey upon it, for all I know (a quick google regretably turns up nothing to support that idea though).

    It’s not a dumb question at all though. However, making viruses sit, rollover, play dead and eat vira we don’t like is tricksity business. One of the scienceblogs post already mentioned that it seems there’s a certain minimal size a virus needs to be to have it’s own viruses. Likely HIV is too small, but not every pathogenic virus would be. It’s not feasible now, and may never be for many organisms, but it’s a good idea.
    Facinatingly from a history-of-science perspective, one of the first thoughts with bacteriophages was to harness them to hurt pathogenic bacteria. Unfortunately for virology, this was just about the time penicillin was discovered and phages got dropped like a bowl of modly tofu… until we started realzing how we could use them to study molecular biology and they played instrumental roles in establishing the central dogma. But that is a long story in itself…