It is now known that many strange viruses thrive in hostile environments once thought to be the sole domain of simple life forms called extremophile microbes. Found in bubbling sulfur pools, deep-sea vents, or even glacier cores, these so-called extreme viruses give us a glimpse of the diversity and the resilience of life. Scientists who have tracked down and studied extreme viruses have found that some of them lacked even a single gene recognizable to science at that time.
Microbiologist Kenneth Stedman got the bug to study these extreme viruses in 1996 while studying at the Max Planck Institute of biochemistry in Germany, Researchers at the institute were the first to discover extreme viruses, which were found infecting Sulfolobus extremophile microbes that thrive in near-boiling hot springs around the world. Extreme viruses are found everywhere. Sulfolobus microbes are, with at least six distinct virus types of different shapes and sizes identified so far.
Scientists are not only thrilled about discovering new viruses that have never been seen before, they are also excited about their potential use in biotechnology. One extreme virus has already been turned into a potentially useful tool for manufacturing, Stedman and a team of colleagues added genes from an extremophile microbe called Pyrococcus to a virus that produces an enzyme. The enzyme breaks down cellulose, a process required in papermaking and food processing.
The team then infected Sulfolobus microbes with the modified virus and observed that the new genes turned the microbe host into a tiny factor, that replicates the enzyme time and again. These microbe factories will likely be particularly useful to industry because the enzyme functions at very high temperatures, which speeds the cellulose- breakdown process.
The viruses of the Sulfolobus microbe have been the most thoroughly studied because the host microbe is easily cultured in a lab. However, researchers estimate there are hundreds or even thousands of ether extremophile microbes, and they believe that most possess their own unique viruses. Stedman, microbiologist Mark Young, and chemist Wolfman Zillag of the Max Planck Institute plan to search for microbes in some of the 10,000 hot springs in Yellowstone National Park in hopes of locating new viruses.
They also hope to unlock some of the secrets about the extraordinary evolutionary spurts these viruses have undergone in order to survive in such extreme habitats, “The viruses in these strange environments are like biosensors,” says Young. “They change genetically much faster than any other organism that we know.” The researchers aim to solve other mysteries as well, including how microbes and viruses have spread to remote volcanic areas around the world.