Characterization of Mollivirus kamchatka, the first modern representative of the proposed Molliviridae family of giant viruses

Microbes trapped in permanently frozen paleosoils (permafrost) are the focus of increasing researches in the context of global warming. Our previous investigations led to the discovery and reactivation of two Acanthamoeba-infecting giant viruses, Mollivirus sibericum and Pithovirus sibericum from a 30,000-year old permafrost layer. While several modern pithovirus strains have since been isolated, no contemporary mollivirus relative was found. We now describe Mollivirus kamchatka, a close relative to M. sibericum, isolated from surface soil sampled on the bank of the Kronotsky river in Kamchatka. This discovery confirms that molliviruses have not gone extinct and are at least present in a distant subarctic continental location. This modern isolate exhibits a nucleo-cytoplasmic replication cycle identical to that of M. sibericum. Its spherical particle (0.6-μm in diameter) encloses a 648-kb GC-rich double stranded DNA genome coding for 480 proteins of which 61 % are unique to these two molliviruses. The 461 homologous proteins are highly conserved (92 % identical residues in average) despite the presumed stasis of M. sibericum for the last 30,000 years. Selection pressure analyses show that most of these proteins contribute to the virus fitness. The comparison of these first two molliviruses clarify their evolutionary relationship with the pandoraviruses, supporting their provisional classification in a distinct family, the Molliviridae, pending the eventual discovery of intermediary missing links better demonstrating their common ancestry.

Authors: Eugene Christo-Foroux, Jean-Marie Alempic, Audrey Lartigue, Sébastien Santini, Karine Labadie, Matthieu Legendre, Chantal Abergel, Jean-Michel Claverie