Origin of Life Artist Concept

Incredible Virus Discovery Offers Clues About the Origins of Complex Life

“Origin of Life” artist’s concept.

The first discovery of viruses infecting a group of microbes that may include the ancestors of all complex life has been found, scientists at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) report in Nature Microbiology. The incredible discovery offers tantalizing clues about the origins of complex life and suggests new directions for investigating the hypothesis that viruses were essential to the evolution of humans and other complex life forms.

There is a well-supported hypothesis that all complex life forms such as humans, starfish, and trees — which feature cells with a nucleus and are called eukaryotes — originated when archaea and bacteria merged to form a hybrid organism. Recent research suggests the first eukaryotes are direct descendants of so-called Asgard archaea. The latest research, by Ian Rambo (a former doctoral student at UT Austin) and other members of Brett Baker’s lab, sheds light on how viruses, too, may have played a role in this billions-year-old history.

Viruses Infecting ASGARD archaea

Comparison of all known virus genomes. Those viruses with similar genomes are grouped together including those that infect bacteria (on the left), eukaryotes (on the right and bottom center). The viruses that infect Asgard archaea are unique from those that have been described before. Credit: University of Texas at Austin

“This study is opening a door to better resolving the origin of eukaryotes and understanding the role of viruses in the ecology and evolution of Asgard archaea,” Rambo said. “There is a hypothesis that viruses may have contributed to the emergence of complex cellular life.”

Alvin Submersible

Researchers from UT Austin used the Alvin submersible to collect sediment samples and microbes from 2000m (6600 feet) deep in the Gulf of California. Credit: Brett Baker

Rambo is referring to a hotly debated hypothesis called viral eukaryogenesis. It suggests that, in addition to bacteria and archaea, viruses might have contributed some genetic component to the development of eukaryotes. While this latest discovery does not settle that debate, it does offer some interesting clues.

The newly discovered viruses that infect currently living Asgard archaea do have some features similar to viruses that infect eukaryotes, including the ability to copy their own

Alvin Submersible in Gulf of California

Researchers from UT Austin used the Alvin submersible to collect sediment samples and microbes from 2000m (6600 feet) deep in the Gulf of California. Credit: Brett Baker

“We are now starting to understand the implication and role that viruses could have had in the eukaryogenesis puzzle,” said Valerie De Anda, a research associate at UT Austin and co-author of the study.

Reference: “Genomes of six viruses that infect Asgard archaea from deep-sea sediments” 27 June 2022, Nature Microbiology.
DOI: 10.1038/s41564-022-01150-8

The other co-authors of the study are Pedro Leão, a postdoctoral research fellow at UT Austin, and Marguerite Langwig, formerly a master’s student at UT Austin and currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This work was supported by the Moore and Simons Foundations.


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