Did Viruses Teach Us Sex?

Sex is a weird thing. At its core, the process involves a cell from one organism meeting up with another cell from another organism. These two cells have to become one when they collide, and they do this by fusing. New evidence suggests that the molecules responsible for this fusion might have come from viruses.

A new paper in the journal Current Biology noticed that proteins called fusogens in a single-celled organism are remarkably similar to another group of proteins produced by several types of viruses. Both types of fusogens are responsible for cell fusion in their respective organism/virus. In the single-celled organism, called Tetrahymena, fusogens dot the outside of the cell and allow the cells to undergo fusion and a primitive version of sex. Viruses, on the other hand, use fusogens to invade their cellular hosts.

mating_tetrahymena
Sex in Tetrahymena — Image: Jmf368w (CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers involved in the present study were surprised when they saw just how similar Tetrahymena and viral fusogens look. Since proteins are just long strings of amino acids that are folded into complex shapes, we can represent a protein as a string of letters similar to what is done with DNA sequences. Then we can use a computer program to align the protein strings together by similarity. If two protein sequences align with a great deal of similarity–such that there is relatively little difference between the amino acid sequences of the two–it is often inferred that the proteins share a recent ancestor in evolutionary time. This is because evolutionary change is due to change at the DNA level, and the DNA change ultimately determines the protein change. When the viral and Tetrahymena fusogens were aligned, they appeared to be closely related based on similarity.

Not only did viral and Tetrahymena fusogens look strikingly similar, but the researchers were also able to show that they behaved quite similarly in a test tube. Specifically, they were similar in how they interacted with the chemicals that make up the exteriors of cells. The researchers concluded from this that both the structure and function of fusogens are conserved between viruses and Tetrahymena. When we see conservation of structure and function in biology, it is usually suggests that structures share an evolutionary origin.

So could viruses have passed sex on to us by leaving behind fusogens in our ancestor’s cells? Maybe, but the team that wrote this paper is not sure, and even admit that it might have happened the other way around. The bottom line is that we will need more evidence to know for sure, but this is certainly good circumstantial evidence that sexually reproducing organisms might owe a debt of gratitude to our infectious viral frenemies.

A Voyage of Viral Discovery

Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene came out 40 years ago, so it is only fitting that I get to write about the most selfish genes of all: viruses. Basically, viruses are pieces of genetic material–either DNA or RNA–surrounded by a protein shell and maybe some lipid membrane. Viruses are not living cells, and they do not fulfill most of the hallmarks of life that many of us learned in middle school: viruses do not catalyze their own chemical
reactions, they are not made up of cells, and they do not reproduce on their own. In order to do the chemical reactions necessary to reproduce and make more copies of themselves, viruses must find a way to put that genetic material that they carry into a living host cell and trick the host into using the code as it would use its own genome. This is how the virus manages to make the host into a veritable virus factory.

Since viruses rely on living cells for almost everything, it has not been easy to study them. In fact, we did not even know that viruses existed until the late 19th century. The first viruses were isolated when scientists studying a pathogen found that they could run infectious material through the smallest available filters without removing the infectious factor. At that point, they just called them “non-filterable agents” and reasoned that they must be extremely small, even smaller than bacteria. Experiments by others in the early and mid-20th century went on to discover that viruses were mostly protein and nucleic acid (RNA or DNA), making them radically different from previously known cellular life.

As biologists, we were pretty late to the virus party–shoot, we pretty much knew what cells were shortly after the first microscopes were built in the 1600s, but it somehow took until the 1800s to know that there was something smaller that could cause disease–so it is no surprise that there is still a lot for us to learn about the tiny “non-filterable agents.” Appropriately, a recent paper in Nature claimed to find over 1000 distinct viruses that are all new to science. To make this discovery, the scientists first had to pick a group of cellular hosts in which to look for viruses. They settled on invertebrates, a diverse group of animals that include everything from insects and squids to sea urchins and earthworms. They also had to decide what type of viruses they would look for, opting to search for RNA viruses, which invade a host using RNA instead of DNA as their genetic material. By collecting and sequencing RNA from over 200 different invertebrate species, they were able to piece together long strands of RNA using the sequencing data and a computer program. However, those long reconstructed strands of RNA did not necessarily come from a virus present within the host. Host cells make their own RNA all of the time using their own DNA as a template. In order to be sure that the piece of RNA they found originated in a virus, they needed a signature that could only be present in a viral RNA. They found that signature in the form of a RNA virus-specific gene called “RNA-dependent RNA polyermase” or RdRp. RNA viruses use RdRp to copy their RNA genome when they invade a host cell, but they have to bring their own as part of their RNA genome; animals just do not have an RdRp. (That is, unless you believe this group that claims to have found a possibly-functional RdRp gene in a bat genome. I hope you will agree with me when I say that living things tend to be amazing because all of the rules we have about them are inevitably broken in some other organism.)

With this handy tool to distinguish viral RNAs from the rest of the pool, the authors had a field day discovering new RNA viruses. In addition to classifying viruses based on the host they were discovered within, they also used a technique known as “phylogenetics” to compare the RNA sequence of all viruses in order to place them on a tree of life relative to each other. Since all life on earth can ultimately trace its root back to one common ancestor that is the evolutionary relative to all of us, from human to bacterium, we can compare the nucleic acid sequences of organisms or viruses in order to infer their evolutionary distance from each other. For example, two viruses with relatively similar RdRp genes would be inferred to be quite closely related compared to a third virus with less sequence in common in the RdRp gene.

These new viruses were not discovered as human pathogens, so it is unlikely that this finding will have any direct medical relevance. This result can instead be useful for ecologists and evolutionary biologists who want to understand the variety of viruses that infect the invertebrates studied. Moreover, since we know quite a lot about the evolutionary relationships between different invertebrates–owing to us having studied them quite intensely for decades or even centuries–we can now use the new phylogenetic information about viral genome relatedness to start to ask questions about how the viruses co-evolved with their hosts. For instance, a group of related beetles may tend to be infected with related RNA viruses. If this is the case, then it is possible that an early ancestor of those RNA viruses made a living infecting an early ancestor of those beetles. Basic studies like that might also help us to someday understand host-virus co-evolution in humans and our viruses. After all, humans are in no danger of hitting an evolutionary brick wall, and neither are our viral foes.

Another Zika Structure…and a Mea Culpa

From time to time, I make a mistake by failing to keep up with the primary scientific literature as closely as I should. If I had been on my grind, I would have noticed that another Zika structure was published in Science at around the same time as the Nature structure that I blogged about earlier. The group that put together this structure also compared the Zika particle to related viruses, this time choosing to focus on a region of the viral protein coat that is especially dissimilar to related viruses. The authors go on to suggest that this region of the coat may be involved in attaching to host cells, which could explain how transmissible Zika is compared to its relatives.

Scientists Publish Zika Snapshot

(Image credit: Kostyuchenko et al. (2016) Nature.)

Update (4/27/2016): Science also published a Zika structure, drawing complementary conclusions from it. I thought it would be a good idea to post a small blurb about it here.

A group in Singapore published a structure of the Zika virus particle in Nature on Wednesday. Zika, which the Centers for Disease Control recently concluded is responsible for birth defects in children of infected mothers, has become a growing public health concern.

Victor A. Kostyuchenko and his colleagues at the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School used cryo-electron microscopy to see the structure of Zika particles incubated at different temperatures. Importantly, the scientists found that the Zika particle is stable over a broader range of temperatures than other related viruses. On a practical level, this could mean that the virus is more transmissible than related viruses, and may be more challenging to control.

Virus particles are simply genetic material–either DNA or RNA–surrounded by a protein coat that protects and transports the genetic material. When the protein coat comes into contact with a susceptible cell, the virus can inject its genetic material into the host. The virus then uses its own genetic material to take over the cell’s own protein-producing machinery in order to produce more viruses. Eventually, those new viruses will be released and go on to infect other cells.

The authors note that their structural model can allow others to find drugs that may destabilize the virus. The hardiness of the Zika particle is almost certainly due to a tough protein coat, but certain drugs may make that protein coat more susceptible to degradation at higher temperatures or other harsh environments. All of this can be used to help stem the transmission of the virus.

For more information, check out the article at Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vnfv/ncurrent/full/nature17994.html