“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.”
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.”