Scientists collect completely new type of virus from 29,000 feet below the ocean
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Scientists have found a completely new type of virus 8.9km below sea level.
That sounds terrifying, but thankfully it's not as scary as it seems.
It is believed that this new virus belongs to a brand new family of ‘Siphoviruses’. The latter is known to only infect bacteria, meaning that humans cannot act as hosts.
However, this isn’t the first time scientists have discovered these bacteriophages - viruses that live and replicate in bacterial hosts.
A virus was previously discovered at a depth of 8.636km in the trench. Despite the multiple findings, the nature of these phages is still largely unknown.
In a recent study published in Microbiology Spectrum, international scientists have named the new bacteriophage vB_HmeY_H4907.
They state it is the ‘deepest known phage isolated to date’ and say the new finding ‘represents a novel abundant viral family in the ocean.’
The virus was found in the hadal zone, the deepest parts of the ocean from 6km to 11km below sea level.
Regarding the uncovering of the phage, the team said: “The hadal trench is the planet’s least explored and the most mysterious environment, and it is the deepest habitat for life on Earth’s surface.
“Our understanding of hadal viruses has been greatly limited by the scarcity of isolated viruses in the hadal trenches.
“This study reported the discovery of a temperate phage…isolated from surface sediment from the Mariana Trench at the depth of 8,900 m. To our best knowledge, it is the deepest isolated siphovirus from the ocean.”
Giving an insight into the research team who found the virus, co-authors Min Wang, Yue Su and Yantao Liang told Motherboard: “We are marine virologists, and our research team's primary focus lies in investigating the community structure, diversity, distribution patterns, regulatory mechanisms, and ecological roles of viruses and their hosts in various marine habitats, such as polar regions and the deep sea.
“Host bacteria was isolated from the sediments of the Mariana Trench by our collaborator Yu-Zhong Zhang's team.
“Their research team has been exploring microbial life in various extreme environments, including the Mariana Trench, while we are primarily focused on viruses. Considering the unique nature of the trench, the likelihood of isolating viruses using conventional infection methods is pretty low.”
Elsewhere in the published research, the scientists stated that the phage infects a bacterial species in the Halomonas family of bacteria.
The latter has apparently adapted to deep hadal environments and are known for their ‘capacity to break down petroleum hydrocarbons, flourish in environments with high salt concentrations and alkaline pH, and high tolerance to contamination.’
As per the study, the phage is ‘abundant in the Mariana Trench’. This suggests it could play an ‘essential role’ in hadal environments like the Antarctic seafloor and deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
Since discovering vB_HmeY_H4907, researchers have been able to conduct a genomic analysis of the phage.
The study reveals that it has an ‘icosahedron head’, which has an average diameter of 65 nanometers, and a ‘long, non-contractible tail’. The latter averages slightly longer than the head at 183 nanometers.
To conclude their study, scientists have stated that this research has ‘deepened’ their knowledge of hadal phages.
It’s also said that the genetic diversity and genomic features of the virus have been further explored to provide a ‘theoretical basis’ for more in-depth analysis.
So while this deep-sea virus cannot infect humans, it is crucial to continue studying it, due to it being described as 'essential regulators of global ecology'.
Wang further stated that in the future, the group plans to investigate the ‘molecular machinery that drives interactions between deep-sea viruses and their hosts’.