Viruses con bacteria into working for them

January 26, 2012

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

MIT researchers have discovered that certain photosynthetic ocean bacteria need to beware of viruses bearing gifts: These viruses are really con artists carrying genetic material taken from their previous bacterial hosts that tricks the new host into using its own machinery to activate the genes, a process never before documented in any virus-bacteria relationship.

The con occurs when a grifter virus injects its DNA into a bacterium living in a phosphorus-starved region of the ocean. Such bacteria, stressed by the lack of phosphorus (which they use as a nutrient), have their phosphorus-gathering machinery in high gear. The virus senses the host’s stress and offers what seems like a helping hand: bacterial genes nearly identical to the host’s own that enable the host to gather more phosphorus. The host uses those genes,— but the additional phosphorus goes primarily toward supporting the virus’ replication of its own DNA.

Once that process is complete (about 10 hours after infection), the virus explodes its host, releasing progeny viruses back into the ocean where they can invade other bacteria and repeat this process. The additional phosphorus-gathering genes provided by the virus keep its reproduction cycle on schedule.

In essence, the virus (or phage) is co-opting a very sophisticated component of the host’s regulatory machinery to enhance its own reproduction — something never before documented in a virus-bacteria relationship.

“This is the first demonstration of a virus of any kind — even those heavily studied in biomedical research — exploiting this kind of regulatory machinery in a host cell, and it has evolved in response to the extreme selection pressures of phosphorus limitation in many parts of the global oceans,” says Sallie (Penny) W. Chisholm, a professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE) and biology a