Analysis of virus genomes from glacial environments reveals novel virus groups with unusual host interactions

Christopher M Bellas, Alexandre M B Anesio, Gary L A Barker

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Microbial communities in glacial ecosystems are diverse, active, and subjected to strong viral pressures and infection rates. In this study we analyse putative virus genomes assembled from three dsDNA viromes from cryoconite hole ecosystems of Svalbard and the Greenland Ice Sheet to assess the potential hosts and functional role viruses play in these habitats. We assembled 208 million reads from the virus-size fraction and developed a procedure to select genuine virus scaffolds from cellular contamination. Our curated virus library contained 546 scaffolds up to 230 Kb in length, 54 of which were circular virus consensus genomes. Analysis of virus marker genes revealed a wide range of viruses had been assembled, including bacteriophages, cyanophages, nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses and a virophage, with putative hosts identified as Cyanobacteria, Alphaproteobacteria, Gammaproteobacteria, Actinobacteria, Firmicutes, eukaryotic algae and amoebae. Whole genome comparisons revealed the majority of circular genome scaffolds (CGS) formed 12 novel groups, two of which contained multiple phage members with plasmid-like properties, including a group of phage-plasmids possessing plasmid-like partition genes and toxin-antitoxin addiction modules to ensure their replication and a satellite phage-plasmid group. Surprisingly we also assembled a phage that not only encoded plasmid partition genes, but a clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR)/Cas adaptive bacterial immune system. One of the spacers was an exact match for another phage in our virome, indicating that in a novel use of the system, the lysogen was potentially capable of conferring immunity on its bacterial host against other phage. Together these results suggest that highly novel and diverse groups of viruses are present in glacial environments, some of which utilize very unusual life strategies and genes to control their replication and maintain a long-term relationship with their hosts.
Original languageEnglish
Article number656
Number of pages14
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2015


  • virus ecology
  • cryosphere
  • virus genomes
  • cryoconite
  • lysogeny
  • phage plasmid


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