The Pandoravirus

STORY BY James Sullivan

Published: September 23, 2013

The Pandora reference is probably lost on most – the heroine of Ancient Greek mythology for which a new type of macrophage virus was named, after its discovery in an Australian pond this July. While the concept of building your own radio station comes to mind nowadays, and not she who released the world's ills and brought about the corruption of mankind - these viruses, which are 1 micrometer in size – roughly the size of a cell and mistakable for one – are gigantic warehouses of genetic material, bearing many genes that were previously unknown to science – and with its discovery, unleashing a regular Pandora's Box of questions to evolutionary science with regards to its origins, and even further questioning the roles that viruses play in nature. It's large enough to be seen with toy microscopes.

Viruses, as they only seek energy and reproduce, are largely considered non-living bits of protein dependent on other life forms in order to survive. The Pandoravirus, which is thankfully harmless to humans as it only affects amoeba, was identified only after tests that proved it was not another protozoan, because of its immensity and the rush of genetic activity observed within its walls, and comes after the discovery of two other large waterborne viruses, previously mistaken for different types of monerans due to their substantial size. What is more intriguing is how these viruses and their distant cousins managed to stay hidden for so long despite their size – the megavirus was discovered in 1992 but not classified rightfully as such until 2003, and its discovery happened only 15,000 kilometers from where pandoravirus was found – bringing a sort of Lovecraftian shock to it all – that these beings have been hiding in plain view, only waiting for us to realize their presence.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of these beings is what they bring to the table when contemplating where we come from. So divergent are the Pandoravirus from other life forms, that their genomes revealed only 200 recognizable genes to biologists, and thus spanning a new branch of the great tree of life. While they were only believed to carry approximately 1,000 genes  upon collection, the specimens are now  said to bear 2,556 varieties within its DNA megabase, meaning that only six percent of its makeup is known, the rest being phantoms that science is only beginning to understand, and could give way to a whole hidden ecosystem, or more clues on the myriad of prehistoric creatures that went extinct with each passing age – as the fossil record, extensive as it is, only gives us a small picture of all the life that ever existed on Earth, fossil preservation itself being a rare occurrence.

Dr. Abergel, who led the research team behind identifying the virus at France's National Centre for Scientific Research, explained that the Pandoravirus plays a significant role in production of carbon and oxygen, perhaps being one of the earliest coded bundles of proteins to replicate as life began to form in a warm little pond in the primordial beginning, after the Earth cooled enough to support life, just less than four billion years ago.

 

Other Stories by James Sullivan
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