Monday, July 22, 2013

Voluminous virus

We believe we’re opening a Pandora’s box – not so much for humanity but for dogma about viruses. We believe we’re touching an alternative tree of life.” So says Dr. Jean-Michel Claverie of the University of Mediterranée, about the discovery of the most enormous virus yet known. Calling them Pandoraviruses, the team of French scientists found one variety at the mouth of a river in Chile and another at the bottom of a freshwater pond in Australia. They are almost a full micrometer in size – so large that they are visible under a traditional light microscope. They are 1,000 times bigger than the flu virus by volume and have nearly 200 times as many genes. And of the 2,556 genes they carry, only 6% match any gene known to science. The discovery suggests that scientists will have to revise their concept of what a virus looks like and consider the evolutionary origin of this new form of life. Despite the attention-getting headlines about this "monster virus," the consensus is that it does not pose a major threat to human health. Molecular biologist Tom Williams of Newcastle University says calmly, “I think it’s wonderful that such crazy and divergent lifeforms continue to be discovered."

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