‘Giant viruses’ many times bigger, more complex than coronavirus under study

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles, also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. (Reuters)

While many scientists are researching how coronavirus exists in warm temperatures, a team of experts in the United States are studying giant viruses, which can exist at extremely low temperatures.

Over three times the size of the novel coronavirus, giant viruses are in excess of 300 nanometers and can survive for millennia. Virologists have yet to conclude whether giant viruses are capable of infecting humans – unlike the novel coronavirus, known technically as SARS-CoV-2.

Giant viruses are extremely complex, and some can retain the ability to infect after being frozen for thousands of years in permafrost, according to Kristin Parent, the principal investigator of the Michigan State University (MSU) study on giant viruses.

“Giant viruses are gargantuan in size and complexity. The giant viruses recently discovered in Siberia retained the ability to infect after 30,000 years in permafrost,” said Parent, an associate professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the university, in an interview with MSU Today.

In 2015, a giant virus, 600 nanometers in size, was discovered within permafrost in the Russian province of Siberia. It was determined the virus was not infectious to humans, but instead amoebas, scientist Chantal Abergel told Live Science in 2015. Abergel was a co-author of the study about the discovery of the virus.

A general view outside the Turan village in the Republic of Tuva (Tyva region) in Southern Siberia, Russia, on February 13, 2018. (AP)

A general view outside the Turan village in the Republic of Tuva (Tyva region) in Southern Siberia, Russia, on February 13, 2018. (AP)

The composition of giant viruses allow them to withstand harsh environments, according to the MSU report, which said the outer shells of the giant viruses protect “the viral genome inside.”

Using real specimens of giant viruses, the team of MSU scientists replicated the stages of infection. The team used a Cryo-Electron Microscopy microscope, a technique used on samples cooled to cryogenic temperatures, that is between -150 degrees Celsius to -273 degrees Celsius.

Parent told MSU Today several key proteins released during the initial stages of infection were identified as being responsible for helping complete the viral takeover.

The team has designed a model that scientists can use in future studies to mimic stages of infection “reliably and with high frequency,” according to Parent.

The study of giant viruses can help scientists understand the origins of life on Earth, Abergel said in an interview with Live Science.

This image provided by the National Science Foundation shows a timeline of the universe. (AP)

This image provided by the National Science Foundation shows a timeline of the universe. (AP)

Parent told Al Arabiya English giant viruses are distantly related to other types of viruses, and therefore their genomes and relationships to other viruses can be studied to see how they may have evolved.

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