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Virus-only diet? Meet a hungry organism that thrives on them

Researchers stumble across plankton that considers viruses to be more like a snack than danger

The researchers asserted that viruses can also be served as food as they were built on carbon and other basic cornerstones of life. Representative photo: iStock

Scientists made a monumental breakthrough by identifying an organism that dines entirely on viruses. Researchers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s have discovered a species that can eat huge numbers of infectious viruses that share their aquatic habitat.

Halteria — microscopic ciliates (a single-celled organism with minuscule hairs) that populate freshwater worldwide — can thrive wholly on a virus-only diet or ‘virovory’.

Also read: Keeping up with viruses: Discoveries in 2022 to keep an eye on

‘Virovory’ is sufficient to support an organism’s physiological development and even population increase, noted the findings of the research published in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences December 27, 2022.

The scientists took water samples from a pond, contained all the microorganisms in water droplets and added “large quantities” of chlorovirus, which is known to infect tiny green algae.

They examined the samples after 24 hours and found that Halteria was considering the virus more like a snack than a danger.

“It seemed obvious that everything’s got to be getting viruses in their mouths all the time,” said Pac-Man, DeLong, co-author of the study.

It seemed like it had to be happening because there’s just so much of it in the water, he added.

Most studies rank viruses as the top ‘predator’ in food chains. However, Long and his team asserted that viruses can also be served as food as they were built on carbon and other basic cornerstones of life.

Also read: Scientists revive approximately 50,000-year-old ‘zombie virus’ from frozen lake in Russia

“They’re made up of really good stuff: Nucleic acids, a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous,” he said. 

The laboratory samples of the Halteria swallowed the chloroviruses supplied to its surroundings and the virus, on the other hand, fuelled the plankton’s development and boosted its population, the study noted.

“The number of chloroviruses was plummeting by as much as 100-fold in just two days,” read a press note released by the university.

Over the research period, the population of Halteria was growing an average of nearly 15 times larger, with nothing to consume but the virus.

Halteria that had been stripped of the chlorovirus, on the other hand, showed no signs of growth. Nearly 17 per cent of the mass of the chlorovirus that was devoured was also transformed by Halteria into new material.

The discovery also raised the possibility that pressure from other predator bacteria in their environment may have an effect on how viruses evolve.

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