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A giant among viruses could delay ageing and the effects of terminal diseases

(press release from (NERC) Natural Environment Research Council)

A gigantic virus that infects chalk-covered marine algae (tiny floating plants) contains compounds that could be developed for use in anti-ageing and cancer-inhibiting therapies.

This important discovery was made when researchers at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and colleagues at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge unraveled the genetic code of the largest algal virus ever analysed. Their findings are reported in the journal Science, published today (12 August 2005).

Dr Willie Wilson and his team unearthed a cluster of genes responsible for the production of ceramide, a key component of anti-wrinkle and anti-ageing creams. These genes have never before been found in a virus they are more commonly seen in animal and plant cells. Ceramide can control a 'death mechanism' that prolongs the life of a cell and then kills it at will. The same mechanism is seen when a tadpole's tail disappears as it develops into a frog.

Dr Wilson explained, "For an invading virus, the ability to control when your host will die and ensure your own survival is quite incredible. Essentially the virus hijacks the cell and slows down the ageing process by keeping it healthy for as long as possible. It uses the cell as a kind of factory to replicate itself and eventually takes over completely, killing off the cell."

The cell death mechanism raises many implications for the development of drugs that could perhaps hold back the onslaught of life-threatening disease or the process of ageing. The discovery of viral ceramide will therefore be of great interest to scientists and industries looking for new sources of novel compounds for use in medicines and cosmetics.

Dr Wilson added, "This virus really is a giant. Most viruses only have a few genes HIV, for example, has only nine while this algal virus has 472 genes. We've only just scratched the surface much more work is needed to understand what function most of the genes actually perform."

Dr Matthew Holden, leader of the Sanger Institute's analysis team, said: "The genome is remarkably different to other viruses and proved to be a real challenge to decode. The genetic map provides a tantalizing glimpse of the potential benefits locked within, but many of the gene secrets of this mysterious leviathan still remain to be unravelled."

The virus appears to infect only the chalk-covered marine algae species (Emiliania huxleyi) that form beautiful 'blooms' on the surface of the sea, soaking up billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Incredibly, during infection the virus is also thought to control climate through production of a gas (dimethyl sulphide) that helps clouds to form.

More Information can be obtained from:

NERC Press Office: Marion O'Sullivan/Owen Gaffney
Tel: +44 (0) 1793 411727 or +44 (0) 1793 442629
Mobile: +44 (0) 7917 086369
e-mail: pressoffice@nerc.ac.uk

PML news desk: Patricia Marriott
Tel: 01752 633437 or 01752 633100
e-mail: newsdesk@pml.ac.uk

Natural Environment Research Council
http://www.nerc.ac.uk/


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