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What is a Virophage?

A virophage is a unique type of virus that preys on other viruses, hijacking their replication machinery to multiply itself. Much like a pirate of the microscopic world, it can impact the lifecycle of its host virus, often with implications for the broader ecosystem. Intrigued? Discover how these tiny hijackers could unlock new understandings in viral ecology and therapy. What might they teach us next?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A virophage is a subviral agent that uses a virus' reproductive machinery to propagate itself, and in doing so, inhibits the reproduction of the host virus. As of 2012, there are only three known virophages, called the sputnik virophage, the mavirus virophage, and Organic Lake Virophage (OLV). These virophages have only been observed in low order life forms like amoebae, but researchers hope to discover virophages for viruses that affect humans, so that they could possibly be co-opted as a medical treatment.

Part of the reason virophages work is because of the structure of a virus. Viruses are infectious and they contain genetic material, but they are not usually described as being “alive” in the sense that bacteria and other infectious agents are. All viruses, whether simple or complex, are covered by a protein envelope known as a capsid; researchers often try to develop medications which will target the proteins in the capsid in an attempt to destroy viruses in their subjects.

Researchers hope to discover virophages for viruses that affect humans, so that they could possibly be co-opted as a medical treatment.
Researchers hope to discover virophages for viruses that affect humans, so that they could possibly be co-opted as a medical treatment.

In the case of a virophage, the agent can only exist in an organism where another virus exists. In the case of the sputnik virophage, it can only exist in amoebae that contain the Acanthamoeba polyphaga mimivirus, also called the mamavirus. The sputnik virophage then uses the mamavirus' reproductive equipment, which inhibits the reproduction of the mamavirus and makes it produce abnormal forms of itself that can't survive — for instance, the mamavirus may produce an abnormal capsid. One study found that the sputnik virophage reduces the mamavirus' reproduction by 70 percent.

Though virophages have only been found in low order life forms so far, researchers hope to find ones that affect viruses that cause human illness. If such virophages were found, they could possibly be used as part of medical treatments for viral illnesses, but this type of treatment is still entirely theoretical.

Virophages are often compared to bacteriophages, viruses which have evolved to prey on bacteria. Much more is known about bacteriophages; bacteria also represent a natural pool of potential resources for viruses, so it makes sense that viruses would adapt to take advantage of them. Bacteriophages also have potential when it comes to the treatment of disease; they could, for example, be used to assault drug-resistant bacteria.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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    • Researchers hope to discover virophages for viruses that affect humans, so that they could possibly be co-opted as a medical treatment.
      By: Africa Studio
      Researchers hope to discover virophages for viruses that affect humans, so that they could possibly be co-opted as a medical treatment.