With the discovery of Mimivirus ten years ago and, more recently, Megavirus chilensis, researchers thought they had reached the farthest corners of the viral world in terms of size and genetic complexity. With a diameter in the region of a micrometer and a genome incorporating more than 1,100 genes, these giant viruses, which infect amoebas of the Acanthamoeba genus, had already largely encroached on areas previously thought to be the exclusive domain of bacteria. For the sake of comparison, common viruses such as the influenza or AIDS viruses, only contain around ten genes each.
In the article published in Science, the researchers announced they had discovered two new giant viruses: Pandoravirus salinus, on the coast of Chile; Pandoravirus dulcis, in a freshwater pond in Melbourne, Australia.
Detailed analysis has shown that these first two Pandoraviruses have virtually nothing in common with previously characterized giant viruses. What's more, only a very small percentage (6%) of proteins encoded by Pandoravirus salinus are similar to those already identified in other viruses or cellular organisms. With a genome of this size, Pandoravirus salinus has just demonstrated that viruses can be more complex than some eukaryotic cells. Another unusual feature of Pandoraviruses is that they have no gene allowing them to build a protein like the capsid protein, which is the basic building block of traditional viruses.
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