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History of Viruses - Global Puzzle in the Oceans of Life

LED Stories

Elias Hakalehto, PhD, Adj. Prof.


Microbiologist, Biotechnologist

CEO, Finnoflag Oy

Vice President, International Society of Environmental Indicators

First published in 12.1.2021

In the Scientific American of 2008 Ed Rybicki, a virologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa stated: "Still, scientists have been able to piece together some viral histories, based on the fact that the genes of many viruses—such as those that cause herpes and mono—seem to share some properties with cells' own genes." This means that viruses often are species-specific, but they can house genes from one or several organisms or origins. Correspondingly, they could occasionally infect other target cells besides their principal ones. Therefore, it is possible that the same viral strain can sometimes infect more than one species of host organisms. The viruses are transmitters of genetic information. The joint existence with more or less specific viruses seems to be a universal property of life in general. And what are the superficial criteria of life then?

In the scientific viewpoint, it is usual to define life based on two main characteristics:

1. the capability of an organism to transfer genetic information to the next generation of offsprings, and

2. the capability of an organism for cellular metabolism.

The viruses comply with the former precondition of life, but not with the other one. Actually, they do not comprise a cellular structure of their own. This has made it somewhat difficult to position the viral groups into living organisms' taxonomical orders. They do not have clear metabolically active "sachets", but they transmit their genomes into new host cells.


As viruses are universal in their distribution, they are found in plants, animals species, man, bacteria, fungi, algae etc.  Their presence belongs to life as a kind of "spin-off". Since they are such omnipresent creatures, it is evident that viruses have an important role in the biosphere. We can propose them carrying many-sided functions in mediating recombination, which seems to have a rather random but important contribution to the biology of their hosts and thus to the ecosystems as a whole even in the short term. It can also be assumed that the environment changes are reflecting their impacts rapidly via the viruses. The viral presence gives reactivity to the ecosystem; destroying of tropical forests forces the bats to move within larger geographical areas in the search for food and shelter, which also spreads the viral strains carried by those bats. This pattern has been detected in case of such deadly infections as Ebola in Africa, as well as in the all the three severe respiratory coronavirus epidemics so far, caused by SARS-CoV-1 (2002-2003), MERS-CoV (2012 onwards) and SARS-CoV-2 (in 2019 and the following years).


In 1892 Russian botanist Dmitri Ivanovsky realized that the infected tobacco plant's leaf-extracts was still infectious after filtration, which could have removed all bacteria. Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck, in 1898, was the first to designate tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) as a 'virus', after discovering it can migrate on an agar plate as a soluble infective substance. During the later decades, the viruses were found as the causative agents of many diseases and pandemics, such as the Spanish flu in 1918-20 started by the influenza A virus subtype H1N1. Actually, the high death tolls of this about 100 years ago the rampaging pandemics were partially caused by bacterial complications in the patients' respiratory tracts weakened by the virus. The pandemic SARS-CoV-1, MERS-Cov, and SARS-CoV-2 coronaviruses contain genomes of single-stranded RNA like influenza A. However, only the SARS-CoV-2 (since late 2019) developed into a totally global pandemics, whereas the two others remained mostly restricted to the areas of their geographic origins. The first isolate of SARS-CoV-1 was discovered by a World Health Organization physician, Carlo Urbani, in a 48-year old businessman who had travelled from the Chinese Guangdong province to Hanoi. Both the patient and the doctor died from this previously unknown viral infection. The largest and most severe outbreaks occurred in such areas as Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Toronto. Although the disease was transmitted globally by air traffic, it did not cause such total pandemic situations like the SARS-CoV-2 some 17 years later.


The animal diseases causing Coronaviridae family members were found already after 1920, and the human pathogenic viruses first in 1965 or a little earlier (see below). What had delayed the onset of severe coronavirus infections so long, or the question put the other way around? What reasons had provoked their becoming severe lower respiratory tract and other organs and blood circulation damaging agents only during the last 20 years? It is now understood that the most severe consequences of the infections are related to the mosaic of autoimmunity (as characterized by Professor Yehuda Shoenfeld) which has different traits and forms of expression in different individuals. Still, it is not scientifically proven, why the viruses themselves are more severe in the three more or less pandemic recent outbreaks. Could the explanation be an ecological one? It was already in 1998 when Elias Hakalehto and Ilpo Kuronen submitted their international patent application "A Method for Producing Jelly Sweets", which suggested and demonstrated the use of the marmalade sweets for capturing chicken egg yolk IgY antibodies for their delivery onto the respiratory tract and the oro-pharyngeal epithelia. The antibodies could form a surface barrier for about 24 hours,, thus preventing viral entry into the mucosal cells. In the other patent publications a couple of years earlier in 1996, the same authors suggested using safe passive immunization procedure for the blocking of viral epidemics amongst school children and elsewhere in the societies. This passive immunization approach could give rapid reactivity to the counter-measures. This could work equally well with less dangerous and more hazardous viruses. Because viruses are everywhere, they have to have an ecological function. Similarly, the antivirus antibodies have a natural ecological function in protecting both the individual and the community. Passive immunization is universal protection.


It is rather indicative about the development of scientific thinking that more than a century after Ivanovsky and Beijerinck, La Scola and coworkers in 2003 were the first to describe the giant viruses (giruses) amoebae. Acanthamoeba polyphaga Mimivirus, for the microbe-mimicking virus. Mimivirus is the largest virus ever discovered.  Since that discovery, it was proven out that the giruses were as universally distributed as other viruses, among many other cellular organisms besides amoebae. They just had not been found earlier, because according to the erroneous basic assumption, the viruses were not supposed to get retained by the bacterial filter. However, it nowadays can be presumed that giant viruses were responsible for many diseases. Already in 1992, there had been a case of pneumonia in Bradford, England, which was supposed to have been caused by Legionella sp. bacteria residing in a cooling tower. For the first time, the giant viruses were later on recorded as the suspected human pathogens in this case. Moreover, it could be possible that they form a link between humans, amoebae and unicellular pathogens. More information about the giruses could be found, e.g. in the articles of James L. Van Etten (Viruses, American Scientist).


It has been found that 200 litres of seawater contain more than 5000 different viruses, among which the mimiviruses are the most common ones after the bacteriophages. They are significant viruses of the phytoplankton (cyanobacteria and microalgae). One algal species, Emiliani huxleyi, can form blooming rafts of 100.000 square kilometres in both northern and southern oceans. The contribution of giant viruses to the climate was demonstrated as the giruses of the phytoplankton were responsible for a sudden end of this blooming, degradation of the algal cells and the liberation of huge amounts of organic debris thereof. This organic material was then processed by various microbes in seawater producing DMSO, an organic sulphur compound, which then liberated to the atmosphere and provoked rain formation. As this rain contains calcium carbonate particles derived from the microalgae, the giruses' action could also contribute essentially to the natural carbon cycles in the oceans. One indication of this accumulation of the carbon is the white cliffs of Dover in England. Interestingly, the microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck gave the name 'virus' to designate these non-bacterial and soluble infective agents in the filtrate. He also discovered the phenomenon of bacterial sulfate reduction, a form of anaerobic respiration where bacteria could use sulfate as a terminal electron acceptor, instead of oxygen. This discovery has had an important impact on our current understanding of biogeochemical cycles.


All this interdependence of viruses and the so-called higher organisms of different kinds demonstrates beautifully the biosphere's complicated functions. Consequently, it is of high relevance to our well-being as human beings to better understand and foresee these mechanisms related to the microbial world. The coronaviruses were classified as a distinct group of viruses in 1968. The first human coronavirus had been isolated in 1965 from school-boy suffering from a rather common type of flu symptoms. Similar symptoms of the common cold type of disease were reported earlier in some schools in 1961-62. This group of viruses has then been associated with relatively mild upper respiratory tract infections of humans and animals. It was already after 1996 - 98 as Hakalehto and Kuronen proposed chicken egg yolk antibodies for the prevention of viral respiratory infections in the schools. Although practically a risk-free one, this approach has not been widely accepted into wider use to this very day, regardless of the mild but effective treatment could have quickly protected health and saved in expenses. It could offer a complementary method for vaccination and other preventive prophylactic or medical means of disease control and management.


Coronaviruses have a kind of lipid membrane and capsid protein structures that facilitate the intrusion of the virus and its RNA genome into the host cell. This genome, in the case of SARS-CoV-1 consisted of five open reading frames encoding the following proteins:

- replicase polyprotein

- spike glycoprotein (S)

- envelope glycoprotein (E)

- membrane glycoprotein (M)

- nucleocapsid protein (N)

These proteins form the skeleton of the viral structure. As like the cells of the "higher organisms", it houses the hereditary material or genome.

The S protein binds to the species-specific receptors and triggers the fusion between the viral envelope and host cell lipid membrane. The family Coronaviridae were defined as enveloped particles of 80-160 nanometres in diameter, which are budding into the endoplasmic reticulum in the cytoplasm after being synthesized in the host. - After the liberation of the cells, they spread the contagious agents to new cells, tissues and organisms. Why then the SARS-CoV-2 and some other members of the Coronaviridae find their way into the lower respiratory tract causing obstruction and bleeding in the lungs, and in the blood veins? What has caused this change in the behaviour of a virus group that was earlier considered less intrusive, causing only mild upper respiratory and gastrointestinal infections? Possibly, in the search for new cellular hosts, and in looking for safer ways of dissemination, the coronaviruses are most likely prone to seek routes less subjected to UV light or oxidation. Instead, they have possibly become literally "the creatures of darkness", as they spread into different organs of a human or animal host. This need to avoid UV radiation is also a potential reason for their spreading in connection with close contacts between individuals.


With the news about vaccinations to begin against SARS-CoV-2, we have recently got to know from the media about some new variants of the virus. It is always possible that these novel versions emerge as more infective, more dangerous or deadly ones. The emergence of modified virus strains is all expectable and unavoidable. The different viruses may also recombine with each other and the genes of various hosts, leading to new combinations of pathogenic capabilities. And it is also possible that the immunity against the new viruses by the vaccination is not as strong as against antecedent forms of the pathogens. Then it would be highly needed to get other solutions against the contagion. These could include the passive immunization, such as monoclonal antibodies or by specific chicken egg yolk (IgY) antibodies, as discussed earlier on this blog agenda.


There is an evident and straightforward relation between the population densities and the spread of the epidemics. Since many or most of the human contagious diseases, viral or bacterial or other, are zoonoses, it is clear that close contacts between certain animals and humans are important factors in the spread of emerging pandemics. Thus the intraspecies and interspecies contacts between animals also play a crucial role in distributing many contagious diseases. We need to look at the causative agent of the current pandemics and its modifications from this viewpoint, too. Thinking of the distribution of microbes in our inhaled and exhaled air or by our digestive system, or by the human communities, or by the animal farms or industries, or by domestic animals, we need to be open-minded in making the hygienic decisions. In fact, it is important to foresee the risks of making the ecosystems overly monotonous around us. Denmark has decided to temporarily stop the fur industry's branch by slaughtering all the minks. The reason for this decision was the occurrence of novel variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The potential spread of these variants could occur in numerous ways, and they could be identified beforehand. It is possible to obtain extra distance by such precautionary measures as vaccination or prophylactic antibodies or environmental confinement of the contagious agents by physicochemical factors, such as disinfection by chemicals, gases or UVC light.


The current pandemics has hopefully taught us the importance of microbiology in health management. We could find ourselves better prepared for the health risks caused by infectious diseases and emerging pathogens with some forethought. These precautions include hygiene maintenance, biological planning, passive and active immunization, cleaning up the surroundings in public places and their air by using disinfection, filtration, UVC treatment, hydrogen peroxide vapours, gas sterilization by ethylene oxide, sectioning and confinement of risky objects etc. We need microbiological evaluation seamlessly in coordination with medical expertise and better understanding of viruses, bacteria and other contagious agents. And we have to keep in mind that these organisms, as members of the "microbial kingdom" are equally important for our planet's ecological balance and livability as the plants or animals are. However, we need to harness the laws of biology to protect individuals and our societies.



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