Viruses are organisms

Viruses: tiny and on earth since ancient times

How long have viruses existed on earth? Where did they come from And what research is taking place at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin? In the following we will take you on a journey into the world of viruses. In the second part, you will then learn more about viruses as pathogens - and what role they may have played in evolution.

Tiny and mean: what are viruses?

Viruses are infectious, independent, non-cellular, immobile particles. Inside the virus contains genetic material. Their outer shell often has the shape of geometric bodies. Most are rod-shaped or spherical, some look like threads or cuboids. The outer shell consists of protein substances (protein shell). In addition, they can have a fat shell (lipid).

Viruses exist in unimaginable numbers - they are ten times more common than bacteria. The fact that they do not attract attention is due to their tiny size. They are only visible with an electron microscope and are a hundred times smaller than bacteria. The smallest pathogens include polio, and the largest are smallpox viruses. A flu virus averages 0.12 thousandths of a millimeter.

Are viruses living beings?

Viruses are not counted among the living beings, as they do not have their own reproductive apparatus (replication apparatus) and also no metabolism of their own. They can only multiply in living host cells because they depend on the metabolism of their host cells. Therefore, they attack plants, animals and people. There are also viruses that attack bacteria. These bacteriophages are researched in medicine in order to make use of them.

Viruses lack basic functions of life such as metabolism, energy production, breathing and irritability. They embody the highest form of parasitism. However, like real living beings, they have the ability to mutate. As an independent group, they span the inanimate and animate nature in a way that is difficult to grasp. Viruses can be compared to a program that is smuggled into a cell and only has the goal of multiplying.

When did the first viruses appear and where did they come from?

There are only guesses as to their origin. One thesis says that these are genes that have become independent, i.e. scattered chromosome particles that can no longer be controlled by the host cells. Or they developed from bacteria by having lost many of the building blocks of cells. According to a third common hypothesis, the first existing cell in the history of the earth was infected with viruses. After that, they would have accompanied all the evolutionary steps up to human beings, constantly creating new forms.

The latest research suggests that viruses and bacteria are very close to one another. Gigaviruses were discovered that are larger than bacteria and already have the building blocks needed to carry out protein synthesis - which is actually reserved for bacteria as living beings. Charles Darwin said that the beginning of life can no longer be traced in today's conditions.

The current state of research is: The earth was created 4.5 billion years ago and the first biomolecule was created 3.8 billion years ago. Science is still divided on how these riboenzymes came about. Some researchers believe that life comes from space. These molecules had the ability to duplicate and multiply by adding new molecules, so they made copies of themselves. Sometimes it didn't work properly, there were mutations.

The first viruses emerged in front all life. Over time, they adapted to new hosts. The researchers cannot directly detect viruses that are so old. The oldest evidence of bacteria can be found, for example, in so-called stromatolites, of which the oldest are 3.6 billion years old and were found in Australia. No direct evidence of ancient viruses is known. It is a common hypothesis of how viruses could have originated.

The gigaviruses just mentioned were found a few years ago in northeast Siberia, 30 meters deep in the permafrost, at an average temperature of minus 13 degrees - and they were brought back to life by a research team after 30,000 years in the ice.

Researchers estimate the current number to be around 100 million virus types that occur everywhere where there is life - from the deep sea to the Antarctic. It is believed that viruses in the deep sea cause microorganisms to die and release carbon on a large scale. This carbon is then available to other organisms. Viruses can thus influence ecosystems.

Research at the Museum of Natural History

Research for nature is carried out in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. In one research field, scientists study all types of diseases that manifest themselves in the skeleton of fossil vertebrates. The so-called Paleopathology opens up a glimpse into the depths of prehistoric times, asks questions about the evolutionary origin and history of diseases and seeks answers.

  • A research object was Tyrannosaurus rex Tristan Otto and other copies from all over the world. Here you can find out more about the Research cooperation.
  • A team of paleontologists and physicians from Germany, Canada and the USA, with the participation of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, published a cancer disease at Pappochelys rosinae. It is a copy of the oldest turtle in the worldfrom the Triassic period 240 million years ago.
  • A lizard-like animal that lived 289 million years ago in the Permian Period suffered from a bone metabolism disorder similar to Paget's disease in modern humans. This was published by researcher Yara Haridy from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and her cooperation partners in 2019. It is by far oldest known evidence of such a diseasethat involves measles-like viruses.
  • Carried a tick trapped in amber 49 million years ago (Ixodes succineus) already contain the pathogens known today (viruses, bacteria, protozoa)? A research team led by Jason Dunlop, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, published facts about this rare one fossil tick.
  • The research collection of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin organizes the collection, storage and global availability of data from microfossils in deep-sea sediments, for example fromDiatoms around climate and ecosystem research to advance.
  • The Museum für Naturkunde Berlin researches the development of the solar system, the effects of meteorite impacts and the development of the earth from magma ball to blue planet. Be there Modeling - in principle the same method that is used today to calculate the current pandemic course.