UI researchers discover viruses may be living

By Lilly Mashayek

The department of crop sciences aims to encourage an environment of research and collaboration within the department, leading to important developments in research and innovation, said Emerson Nafziger, Research Education Center coordinator and professor in crop sciences.

“People are encouraged to do (research),” Nafziger said. “It’s just part of what we do, it’s in our DNA.”

Gustavo Caetano-Anolles, professor of bioinformatics in the department of crop sciences, and former graduate student Arshan Nasir started the research on viruses in 2012. Understanding how viruses evolve can be useful for learning how to use them in ways that are beneficial to humans, especially in medicine.

“If you don’t have a true understanding of how molecules change, you can’t engineer them to make vaccines, treatments,” Caetano-Anolles said. “We had to find commonalities in all viruses, and we did.”

Understanding how viruses came to be is also essential for understanding how they may evolve in the future and how the viruses change over time.

“We found that viruses originated from cells, ancient cells, that were relatively simple, and then eventually became viruses,” Nasir said.

They aimed to understand viruses by taking a new approach — studying protein folds of the viruses. A major focus of the research was on how viruses evolved and changed over time, making protein folds the best way to study the viruses.

“The traditional way is to basically work with gene sequences; we didn’t want to do that because sequences sometimes can be problematic to understand, especially if we want to go really back in time,” Nasir said. “We wanted to look at how many and how different kinds of protein folds were imported by those genomes.”

By looking at the genomes and protein folds, it became much easier for Caetano-Anolles and Nasir to be able to look at the origins of viruses and where they came from. Caetano-Anolles said learning about the origins of viruses is the most important part of their research.

“Then we can see well back into the past, billions of years past, and that makes a big difference,” he said. “The aspect that is really important here is about their origin … because we need to first understand how all of this diversity came to be.”

The pair previously published a paper in 2012 about including mega viruses on the tree of life, which helped them gain visibility for their subsequent research on the origins of viruses. In order to do so, Nasir had looked at over 5,000 organisms and viruses and placed them in the tree of life.

Caetano-Anolles said the tree of life defines diversity which challenged the idea that virsuses were the non-animate objects that they were previously thought to be.

“We found that viruses are able to transport genes, enhancing biodiversity, and that changed our perceptions about viruses,” Nasir said.

Part of what makes viruses alive, the researchers said, is that they’re evolving.

“They are evolving, and that’s quality of life,” Caetano-Anolles said.“The virus is not so inanimate after all.”

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