Cannibal virus discovered in Antarctica

Washington: Scientists claim to have discovered a cannibal virus that "eats its own" and encourage faster growth of the host algae population in Antarctica.

An international team, led by Prof Rick Cavicchioli of University of New South Wales, has found the virus, called Organic Lake Virophage or OLV, in a hypersaline lake near the Davis station in the white continent, the `Proceedings of the National Academies of Science` journal reported.

The virus is only the third "virophage" discovered. The first one, called Sputnik, was discovered in 2008 and the second one, Mavirus, was discovered earlier this year.

Viruses reproduce by infecting host cells and using cell`s molecular machinery to make multiple copies of their own genome and to package these genomes into protein shells.

A virophage is different in that it targets a host cell that is already infected by a "regular" virus.

Prof Cavicchioli`s team found OLV associated with a group of giant "phycodnaviruses", or PVs, that infect algae and consequently help control algal blooms. Like Sputnik and Mavirus, OLV`s genome includes genes that it collected from the Organic Lake phycodnaviruses, confirming the predator-prey relationship.

The discovery of a virophage in Organic Lake adds new complexity to the dynamics of the microbial community in the Antarctic system, says Prof Cavicchioli whose team modelled the impact of OLV as a predator in the marine system.

"By reducing the number of PVs in the community, OLV shortens the time it takes for the host algae population to recover. Modelling shows that the virophage stimulates secondary production through the microbial loop by reducing overall mortality of the host algal cell after a bloom, and by increasing frequency of blooms during the summer periods.

"Antarctic lake systems have evolved mechanisms to cope with long light-dark cycles and a limited food web. In Organic Lake and similar systems, a decrease in PV activity may be instrumental in maintaining the stability of the microbial food web," he said.

While OLV was the dominant virophage in Organic Lake, the team says that there are other related virophages present.

The scientists have also found genome sequences that match OLV from nearby Ace Lake. And there may be many more virophages waiting to be discovered.