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Viruses and Evolution - Viruses First? A Personal Perspective


Viruses and Evolution - Viruses First? A Personal Perspective

Karin Moelling et al. Front Microbiol.


The discovery of exoplanets within putative habitable zones revolutionized astrobiology in recent years. It stimulated interest in the question about the origin of life and its evolution. Here, we discuss what the roles of viruses might have been at the beginning of life and during evolution. Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on Earth. They are present everywhere, in our surrounding, the oceans, the soil and in every living being. Retroviruses contributed to about half of our genomic sequences and to the evolution of the mammalian placenta. Contemporary viruses reflect evolution ranging from the RNA world to the DNA-protein world. How far back can we trace their contribution? Earliest replicating and evolving entities are the ribozymes or viroids fulfilling several criteria of life. RNA can perform many aspects of life and influences our gene expression until today. The simplest structures with non-protein-coding information may represent models of life built on structural, not genetic information. Viruses today are obligatory parasites depending on host cells. Examples of how an independent lifestyle might have been lost include mitochondria, chloroplasts, Rickettsia and others, which used to be autonomous bacteria and became intracellular parasites or endosymbionts, thereby losing most of their genes. Even in vitro the loss of genes can be recapitulated all the way from coding to non-coding RNA. Furthermore, the giant viruses may indicate that there is no sharp border between living and non-living entities but an evolutionary continuum. Here, it is discussed how viruses can lose and gain genes, and that they are essential drivers of evolution. This discussion may stimulate the thinking about viruses as early possible forms of life. Apart from our view "viruses first", there are others such as "proteins first" and "metabolism first."

Keywords: RNA world; evolution; origin of life; ribozymes; viruses.


A compartment is shown with essential components of life as discussed in the text. Non-coding RNA (ncRNA), ribozymes or viroids, can perform many steps for life without protein-coding genes but only by structural information. Individual amino acids are indicated as black dots and may be available on Earth from the universe. DNA may have existed before retroviruses. The compartment can be interpreted as pre-virus or pre-cell. Viroid, green; RNA, red; DNA, black.
Viroids are hairpin-loop structures and are shown schematically and as electron micrograph. Viroids are, like ribozymes, without genetic information and play major biological roles today in plant diseases, in carnation flowers, in liver cancer, as catalyst of protein synthesis in ribosomes and as circular regulatory RNAs, as “sponges” for other regulatory RNAs.
Size distribution of viruses (red circles), free-living bacteria and eukaryotes (black circles) are shown relative to their frequencies. The transition zone between parasites or symbionts versus free-living species is indicated by a black line. The transition is not a sharp borderline as shown by the circles and as discussed in the text (modified from Holmes, 2011).
Viruses protect against viruses: retroviruses protect a cell against a new infection by a similar virus designated as “superinfection exclusion” or viral interference. This is mediated by viral gene products such as proteins or nucleic acids. Similarly, phages protect against phages: superinfection of bacteria is prevented by CRISPR/Cas RNA originating from previous infections. The mechanisms of defense against viruses and phages are analogous. Protection by viruses or phages against superinfections represents cellular defense and acquired immunity. The four examples are discussed in the text.

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