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Frozen Antarctic lakes yield new viruses

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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viruses antarcticaIn the chilly depths of one of Antarctica’s freshwater lakes, a surprising number of novel viruses thrive.

Researchers braved frigid temperatures to collect water samples from Lake Limnopolar, located on Livingston Island near the Antarctic Peninsula, and sequenced the genomes of the collected species. The new genetic study reveals some 10,000 species of viruses from a dozen families.

The viral diversity in the surface lake was "unexpectedly high," the authors wrote in a report on their findings, published online Thursday in Science. Most aquatic environments typically are home to viral species from only three to six families. The authors attribute the "unprecedented taxonomic diversity and high genetic richness" to the low diversity of other organisms at the site.

These extremophiles survive by living in the lake’s eukaryotes, subsisting through nine months of low-nutrient—and dim-light—levels. They are closely related to viruses that infect larger animals and plants rather than more common aquatic bacteriophages that infect prokaryotes.

The researchers also compared samples taken at different times of the year and found that come high summer (December in Antarctica), when the ice melts away from the lake’s surface, many of the single-stranded DNA viruses had changed into double-stranded versions. "It looks like a completely different lake in the summer," noted Antonio Alcami, of the Spanish Research Council and co-author on the study, LiveScience.com reported.

In fact, some of these more complex viruses may be changing to help their hosts thrive and adapt to a sunnier summer environment, which in turn helps the viruses proliferate. The viruses were found, for example, to contain genes involved in photosynthesis, which might help their algae hosts bloom in the summer.

"We are just starting to uncover the world of viruses," Alcami said. "And this is changing the way we think about viruses and the role they play in microbial ecosystems."

Image of researcher sampling lake water courtesy of Science/AAAS





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  1. 1. JamesDavis 7:20 am 11/6/2009

    Aileen: What the hell does that have to do with viruses? Maybe one of those new viruses can help you out with something that you are not familiar with…reading your lessons before you answer the questions.

    It is beginning to look like viruses were the first living organisms on this planet and it is they who control how life begins here and ends here. And maybe, these viruses can stave off the big oil invasion headed to their region. Man your guns viruses, they are on their way.

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  2. 2. Johnay 12:02 pm 11/6/2009

    It would appear Aileen is merely a spammer.

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  3. 3. ElectricTurtle 12:10 pm 11/6/2009

    JamesDavis: Aside from the longstanding debate about whether viruses can be considered a form of life at all, your statement that they would be the first organisms is easily dismissed. Viruses cannot reproduce without host organisms. Just the sort of half-baked thinking I would expect from somebody who is paranoid about eeeeevil ‘big oil’ coming to Antarctica and endangering some nematodes.

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  4. 4. Quinn the Eskimo 12:46 am 11/7/2009

    I read that Aileen is charging 78.9% interest. That’s very virus-like, isn’t it?

    Good going Aileen. Now, we need another vaccine.

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  5. 5. Jesusreigns 9:24 pm 11/7/2009

    This seems to support the existence multitude of "reserves" of famine, pestilences and other plagues that are being held by God for the Day during tribulations. Read book of Revelation in Bible for details.

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  6. 6. rkirenth 11:05 pm 11/7/2009

    jamesDavis virus are not alive

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  7. 7. ElectricTurtle 11:33 pm 11/9/2009

    Jesusreigns: Yeah, because of course viruses that live in algae and nematodes jump sooo easily over to infecting human populations. Do you know anything about biology, or can we just assume that you never take off your Bible blinders long enough to absorb any dangerous, seditious facts?

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  8. 8. euric 12:19 am 06/20/2010

    these lakes maybe hundreds of thousands of years old and at one time they were completely frozen solid and the microorganisms in these lakes may have had the function to go about processes for the purpose of going into the development of new life forms ,being that they contained dna ,according to one of the articles, and when these lakes became frozen solid ,becoming at temperatures possibly more than 200 degrees below 0, these micro organisms stopped going about their processes to develop life forms ;sort of gone into a suspended state of animation but now that the lakes are thawing,the organisms may come out of their states and continue going through their processes and possibly continue to go into the development of some life forms which they originally had the purpose of going about,before antarctica got covered by ice ,when they began going into their suspended animation states ,discontinuing their processes,but now lakes are thawing out and these organisms may just contiue their processes and who knows what lifeforms may develop from them ,over a period of time.life on earth started with micro organisms containing dna

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  9. 9. euric 12:49 am 06/20/2010

    these lakes have been frozen for hundreds of thousands of years but before they became frozen antarctica at one time was free of ice and the micro-organisms in these lakes that cotained DNA [which is the component of life forms],could have had the function of going through special processes ,for the purpose of developing life forms but when antarctica got covered by ice and the lakes froze over and the temperature under the ice cap dropped to possibly more than 200 degrees below zero ; considering that the surface temperature of antarctica drops to 139 degrees below 0, {let alone how much the temperature must have dropped to,after the entire continent got completely covered and sealed off from the atmosphere by an ice cap 2 miles in thickness,in which case the whole interior of the continent became refrigerated and the temperature throughout the covered interior had to have been much colder than the surface ] weLL these micro-organisms must have gone into a suspended state of animation ,discontinuing their processes on account of the frigidness that existed under the ice cap,in which case discontinuing their processes that were for the purpose of developing life forms – - but now that the lakes are thawing out these organisms may come out of their states and continue their processes and possibly go into the developing of lifeforms ,that were intended to come about from them but who knows how long a period of time it may take – - we do know that life on earth came from micro-organisms containing dna ,but how long it took for life forms to develop – - welL we dont know but these organisms do contain DNA ,according to one of the articles- – so who knows what life forms may come upon us in the future.from george moscatello

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  10. 10. euric 1:11 am 06/20/2010

    sirs ,i sent a message that i felt was very interesting but id like to know if it got transmitted correctly- – can i receive some confirmation-thankyou

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