It seems millennials and our new President aren’t the only ones who can’t stay off social media. Medical researchers recently discovered that viruses also chatter incessantly. One big difference: the viruses are also communicating with a serious purpose.
This accidental finding could lead to new ways to fight viral infections, according to medical researchers.
The viral gab was discovered accidently by researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science. Curiously, the researchers were studying how bacteria communicate when they made the discovery that viruses can also be very chatty. Bacteria use chemical communication to make behavioral decisions based on the number of other bacteria in the area. This messaging can, for example, trigger an attack by disease-causing bacteria on their host.
The Weizmann team was studying how a particular bacteria, b. subtilus, reacts to viral attacks. There seems to be a bully-wimpy kid dynamic between these organisms – viruses love to attack b. subtilus. The viruses attack in one of two ways, either by entering the bacteria and multiplying until the bacterium explodes or by slipping a bit of their gnome into the bacterium where it lies dormant until some environmental signal wakes up the bit of DNA tells it to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting bacterium.
The scientists theorized that the subtilus bacteria might have developed a method of warning each other of a looming viral attack. Instead, their experiments showed that the viruses actually changed their method of attack on the bacteria as the result of chemical communication between the viruses. Bottom line: the viruses realized that the number of bacteria was diminishing in the experiment. In order not to eliminate all their hosts, the viruses collectively stopped blowing up bacterium and instead began slipping their gnome into the victims. This communication was carried in a protein the researchers named “arbitrium,” after the Latin word for decision.
While only one virus, phiT34, was studied in this research, scientists have found traces of arbitrium-like proteins in other bacteria. This leads them to believe other viruses use chemical communication to coordinate their actions. And that has the medical community buzzing. A whole new generation of anti-viral drugs could be based on the notion of turning the viruses’ communication system against these simple but often deadly creatures.