Incomplete tricarboxylic acid cycle and proton gradient in Pandoravirus massiliensis

The discovery of Acanthamoeba polyphaga Mimivirus, the first isolated giant virus of amoeba, challenged the historical hallmarks defining a virus. Giant virion sizes are known to reach up to 2.3 µm, making them visible by optical microscopy. Their large genome sizes of up to 2.5 Mb can encode proteins involved in the translation apparatus. We have investigated possible energy production in Pandoravirus massiliensis. Mitochondrial membrane markers allowed for the detection of a membrane potential in purified virions and this was enhanced by a regulator of the tricarboxylic acid cycle but abolished by the use of a depolarizing agent. Bioinformatics was employed to identify enzymes involved in virion proton gradient generation and this approach revealed that eight putative P. massiliensis proteins exhibited low sequence identities with known cellular enzymes involved in the universal tricarboxylic acid cycle.

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Fig: Confocal imaging of amoeba infected by P. massiliensisstained with MitoTracker Deep Red (in red) and with specific anti-P. massiliensis antibodies (in green).

Further, all eight viral genes were transcribed during replication. The product of one of these genes, ORF132, was cloned and expressed in Escherichia coli, and shown to function as an isocitrate dehydrogenase, a key enzyme of the tricarboxylic acid cycle. Our findings show for the first time that a membrane potential can exist in Pandoraviruses, and this may be related to tricarboxylic acid cycle. The presence of a proton gradient in P. massiliensis makes this virus a form of life for which it is legitimate to ask the question “what is a virus?”.

Aherfi, S., Belhaouari, D.B., Pinault, L. et al. Incomplete tricarboxylic acid cycle and proton gradient in Pandoravirus massiliensis: is it still a virus?. ISME J (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41396-021-01117-3

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