Evolutionary genomics of archaeal viruses: unique viral genomes in the third domain of life

Virus Res. 2006 Apr;117(1):52-67. doi: 10.1016/j.virusres.2006.01.007. Epub 2006 Feb 28.


In terms of virion morphology, the known viruses of archaea fall into two distinct classes: viruses of mesophilic and moderately thermophilic Eueryarchaeota closely resemble head-and-tail bacteriophages whereas viruses of hyperthermophilic Crenarchaeota show a variety of unique morphotypes. In accord with this distinction, the sequenced genomes of euryarchaeal viruses encode many proteins homologous to bacteriophage capsid proteins. In contrast, initial analysis of the crenarchaeal viral genomes revealed no relationships with bacteriophages and, generally, very few proteins with detectable homologs. Here we describe a re-analysis of the proteins encoded by archaeal viruses, with an emphasis on comparative genomics of the unique viruses of Crenarchaeota. Detailed examination of conserved domains and motifs uncovered a significant number of previously unnoticed homologous relationships among the proteins of crenarchaeal viruses and between viral proteins and those from cellular life forms and allowed functional predictions for some of these conserved genes. A small pool of genes is shared by overlapping subsets of crenarchaeal viruses, in a general analogy with the metagenome structure of bacteriophages. The proteins encoded by the genes belonging to this pool include predicted transcription regulators, ATPases implicated in viral DNA replication and packaging, enzymes of DNA precursor metabolism, RNA modification enzymes, and glycosylases. In addition, each of the crenarchaeal viruses encodes several proteins with prokaryotic but not viral homologs, some of which, predictably, seem to have been scavenged from the crenarchaeal hosts, but others might have been acquired from bacteria. We conclude that crenarchaeal viruses are, in general, evolutionarily unrelated to other known viruses and, probably, evolved via independent accretion of genes derived from the hosts and, through more complex routes of horizontal gene transfer, from other prokaryotes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Archaeal Viruses / genetics*
  • Crenarchaeota / virology*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genome, Viral*
  • Genomics*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Viral Proteins / chemistry
  • Viral Proteins / genetics


  • Viral Proteins