In the so-called Harvard Forest in Massachusetts (USA), previously unknown giant viruses that look “like aliens” have been discovered.
Soil samples in this forest were taken by scientists back in 2018. Giant viruses have been found in these places before, but these turned out to be completely new species.
Scientists were especially surprised by their shape: some looked like a five-pointed star, others resembled a turtle, and another had long “tentacles”.
Giant viruses are called giant because they are larger than normal viruses. Their size ranges from 0.2 to 1.5 micrometers. As a rule, giant viruses are found in the oceans, arctic lakes or in permafrost.
New viruses discovered in soil samples by scientists from the German Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, led by virologist Matthias Fischer.
Viruses with tentacles were immediately given the nickname “Gorgon” in honor of the Greek mythological character Medusa Gorgon, who had a ball of living snakes instead of hair.
Each “Gorgon” virus had about eight to eleven tubular, tentacle-like appendages, each about 500-650 nanometers long and 30-65 nanometers wide. Scientists speculate that these tentacles may be hollow and that some of these tentacle tubes are designed to implant an infectious genetic load.
“What we’ve discovered is an entirely new variety of forms that we’ve never seen before. I would argue that many, if not most, are completely new and first discovered viruses that we’ve never seen before,” Fischer said in an interview with Live Science.
It is not yet known whether these giant viruses pose a threat to humans. Usually giant viruses are dangerous only for single-celled organisms, such as amoeba and ciliates.
According to Fischer, the exact role of these viruses in the complex dynamics of wildlife is still poorly understood.
“They live in the water, in the air, on your skin, in your guts – you just don’t see them. And they have a very beneficial effect not only on the environment, but also on the long term evolution,” Fischer says.