Background: The family Mimiviridae belongs to the large monophyletic group of Nucleo-Cytoplasmic Large DNA Viruses (NCLDV; proposed order Megavirales) and encompasses giant viruses infecting amoeba and probably other unicellular eukaryotes. The recent discovery of the Cafeteria roenbergensis virus (CroV), a distant relative of the prototype mimiviruses, led to a substantial expansion of the genetic variance within the family Mimiviridae. In the light of these findings, a reassessment of the relationships between the mimiviruses and other NCLDV and reconstruction of the evolution of giant virus genomes emerge as interesting and timely goals.
Results: Database searches for the protein sequences encoded in the genomes of several viruses originally classified as members of the family Phycodnaviridae, in particular Organic Lake phycodnaviruses and Phaeocystis globosa viruses (OLPG), revealed a greater number of highly similar homologs in members of the Mimiviridae than in phycodnaviruses. We constructed a collection of 898 Clusters of Orthologous Genes for the putative expanded family Mimiviridae (MimiCOGs) and used these clusters for a comprehensive phylogenetic analysis of the genes that are conserved in most of the NCLDV. The topologies of the phylogenetic trees for these conserved viral genes strongly support the monophyly of the OLPG and the mimiviruses. The same tree topology was obtained by analysis of the phyletic patterns of conserved viral genes. We further employed the mimiCOGs to obtain a maximum likelihood reconstruction of the history of genes losses and gains among the giant viruses. The results reveal massive gene gain in the mimivirus branch and modest gene gain in the OLPG branch.
Conclusions: These phylogenomic results reported here suggest a substantial expansion of the family Mimiviridae. The proposed expanded family encompasses a greater diversity of viruses including a group of viruses with much smaller genomes than those of the original members of the Mimiviridae. If the OLPG group is included in an expanded family Mimiviridae, it becomes the only family of giant viruses currently shown to host virophages. The mimiCOGs are expected to become a key resource for phylogenomics of giant viruses.