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Playing With Fire: Scientists discover completely new species of virus at the deepest point on Earth

In a recent scientific discovery, researchers have identified a viral organism residing in the depths of the Mariana Trench. This virus is believed to be the deepest of its kind ever found and primarily preys on specific types of bacteria.

The Mariana Trench, named after the nearby islands, is located in the Pacific Ocean and represents the Earth’s deepest oceanic trench, reaching depths up to 36,000 feet below the surface.

Despite its almost alien environment, life has adapted and thrived in this extreme habitat. Scientists have previously uncovered various life forms in the Mariana Trench, including fish, shrimp, and microorganisms. Wherever life exists, viruses are often present, seeking to exploit it.

Viruses are still a subject of debate when categorizing them as living organisms since they can only reproduce by hijacking the cellular machinery of other organisms. However, our understanding of these deep-sea viruses remains limited, and their diversity is largely unexplored.

The latest discovery of this virus was made by a team of researchers from China and Australia, and it has been given the name vB_HmeY_H4907.

The scientists isolated this virus from sediment retrieved from a depth of 8,900 meters, equivalent to over 29,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Genetic analysis has revealed that this virus belongs to a previously unidentified family of viruses that are widespread in the world’s oceans, and the researchers have named this family Suviridae.

Furthermore, vB_HmeY_H4907 is classified as a bacteriophage, a virus that utilizes bacteria to replicate itself. The study detailing these findings was published in the journal Microbiology Spectrum.

Min Wang, a virologist at the Ocean University of China and one of the study’s authors, stated, “To our best knowledge, this is the deepest known isolated phage in the global ocean.”

Remarkably, this virus specifically targets Halomonas bacteria, a group known to inhabit deep-sea environments and areas near hydrothermal vents. Surprisingly, the virus and its host appear to have a relatively amicable relationship.

Genetically, the virus closely resembles its host and is classified as a lysogenic phage. It inserts its genetic material into the bacteria but usually does not kill it. Instead, both the virus and the bacteria replicate simultaneously. The researchers hypothesize that vB_HmeY_H4907 may have co-evolved with these bacteria to ensure its survival in the harsh conditions of the deep sea.

The research team intends to investigate further the molecular-level interactions between deep-sea phages and their hosts. Additionally, they will continue their quest to uncover other unique viruses in the world’s most inhospitable environments.

Min Wang emphasized, “Extreme environments offer optimal prospects for unearthing novel viruses.”

While discovering an enigmatic oceanic microbe unknown to humanity may evoke thoughts of a horror movie plot, it’s important to note that viruses, in general, are highly specialized to their hosts and environments.

Therefore, it is doubtful that a deep-sea phage would threaten humans on land if encountered. In contrast, terrestrial phages are being studied for their potential use as weapons against drug-resistant bacteria.

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