Scientific Breakthroughs

New Scientific Evidence Points to Communication Between Viruses

New Scientific Evidence Points to Communication Between Viruses
PHOTOGRAPH: Allonweiner | Photo shows the Bacterium Bacillus subtilis.

Scientists just discovered that viruses communicate with other viruses. It is that communication which decides whether a virus will destroy or wait until a host has achieved fuller growth.

Tapping into such communication would enable scientists to create a new drug to battle viruses. It is also expected that new drug therapy will, in turn, effectively combat deadly diseases like HIV or herpes.

Rotem Sorek of Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel spent two years to identify the protein that viruses use in communicating with one another. Professor Sorek called it arbitrium, which means “decision” in Latin.

Scientists expected early on that viruses are able to send chemical signals or messages. They needed evidence to back their hypothesis.

Search and Destroy

Viruses can act in one of two ways when entering a bacterial cell (such viruses are called bacteriophages). The first is to take over the cell machinery and multiply itself until the cell explodes and dies.

The second is for the virus to simply inject its genome into the bacteria, waiting for another time, to be signaled by an environmental cue, to multiply and destroy. Professor Sorek, in testing said hypothesis, added a virus called phi3T to a flask of Bacillus subtilis.

His expectation proved to be accurate in that the virus destroyed huge numbers of the bacteria. Then the Israeli researcher filtered the mixture in the flask, removing virus and bacteria, leaving the proteins behind.

The geneticist added the protein mixture to another flask of bacillus subtilis – to which he also added the phi3T virus. The result is that the virus did not destroy the bacteria, and instead left its genome in the cell.

Something about the protein made the virus change its mode of attack, and destruction of the bacterial cell was averted. The conclusion arrived at is that when the levels of arbitrium increase, viruses switch their strategy from killing their host cells to injecting their genome.

Peter Fineran of the University of Otago saw the logic in the virus’ action: “If the [bacterio]phage is  running out of hosts, it would try and limit its destruction, and sit quiet and wait for the host to re-establish growth.” When the phi3T virus injected its genome into the bacteria, it left the DNA code for arbitrium.

The scientists then looked at genomes of other bacteria and found no less than 100 unique DNA snippets similar to the arbitrium DNA snippet. It meant viruses other than phi3T also use their own protein as a means of chemically communicating.

Professor Sorek, a recipient of a Scientific Council Prize for Life Sciences, stated in interviews that research into such viral communication is just beginning. Yet the evidence of viral communication has been hailed by other scientists as transformative.

The findings were published in the journal Nature. They signify that the human race has a good fighting chance against deadly diseases – if scientists can tap into those chemical signals and create new drug therapies to battle superbugs.


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