The largest known DNA viruses infect Acanthamoeba and belong to two markedly different families. The Megaviridae exhibit pseudo-icosahedral virions up to 0.7 μm in diameter and adenine–thymine (AT)-rich genomes of up to 1.25 Mb encoding a thousand proteins. Like their Mimivirus prototype discovered 10 y ago, they entirely replicate within cytoplasmic virion factories.
In contrast, the recently discovered Pandoraviruses exhibit larger amphora-shaped virions 1 μm in length and guanine–cytosine-rich genomes up to 2.8 Mb long encoding up to 2,500 proteins. Their replication involves the host nucleus. Whereas the Megaviridae share some general features with the previously described icosahedral large DNA viruses, the Pandoraviruses appear unrelated to them.
Here we report the discovery of a third type of giant virus combining an even larger pandoravirus-like particle 1.5 μm in length with a surprisingly smaller 600 kb AT-rich genome, a gene content more similar to Iridoviruses and Marseillevirus, and a fully cytoplasmic replication reminiscent of the Megaviridae. This suggests that pandoravirus-like particles may be associated with a variety of virus families more diverse than previously envisioned.
This giant virus, named Pithovirus sibericum, was isolated from a >30,000-y-old radiocarbon-dated sample when we initiated a survey of the virome of Siberian permafrost.
The revival of such an ancestral amoeba-infecting virus used as a safe indicator of the possible presence of pathogenic DNA viruses, suggests that the thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health.
The Independent is among the media covering this report.