The Discovery of Filoviruses

10 March, 2015

The discovery of filoviruses: Marburg and Ebola

Marburg virus

In 1967, the world was introduced to a new virusthirty-one people in Marburg and Frankfurt in Germany, and Belgrade in the then Yugoslavia, became infected in a linked outbreak with a novel haemorrhagic fever agent. Twenty-five of them were laboratory workers associated with research centres, and were directly infected via contact with infected vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus aethiops) imported to all three centres from Uganda.  Seven people died.   In what what was a remarkably short period of time for that era – given that this was pre-sequencing and cloning of nucleic acids, let alone viruses – it took less than three months for scientists from Marburg and Hamburg to isolate and characterise what was being called “green monkey virus” virus. The new agent was named Marburg virus (MARV), after the city with the greatest number of cases.

The first electron micrograph of the virus clearly exhibits the filamentous nature of the particles, complete with the now-famous “shepherd’s crook”.

The virus disappeared until 1975, when an Australian hitchhiker who had travelled through what is now Zimbabwe was hospitalised in Johannesburg, South Africa, with symptoms reminiscent of Marburg disease. He died, and his female companion and then a nurse also became infected with what was suspected to be yellow fever or Lassa viruses. In an example for later outbreaks, this led to rapid implementation of strict barrier nursing and isolation of the patients and their contacts, which resulted in quick containment of the outbreak – with recovery of the two secondary cases. MARV was later identified in all three patients.

Ebola virus

Ebola viruses burst from obscurity in 1976, with two spectacular outbreaks of severe haemorrhagic fever in people – both in Africa. In the better-known outbreak for which the viruses were later named, Ebola virus (EBOV) was first associated with an outbreak that eventually totalled 318 cases, starting in September 1976.  This was in the Bumba Zone of the Equateur Region in the north of what was then Zaire, and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  The index case in the outbreak, as well as many of those subsequently infected, was treated in the Yambuku Mission Hospital. He was injected with chloroquine to treat his presumptive malaria: within a few days fever symptoms developed again; within a week, several others who had received injections around the same time also developed fevers which in several cases had haemorrhagic complications. 

Interestingly, women 15-29 years of age were most affected by the disease: this was strongly correlated with their attending antenatal clinics at the hospital, where they regularly received injections.

Apparently the hospital had only five old-style syringes and needles, and these were reused without proper sterilisation.  Nearly all cases in this outbreak either received injections at the hospital, or had close contact with those who had. 

Most people were infected within the first four weeks of the outbreak, after which the hospital was closed because 11 of 17 staff had died.  Another  269 people died, for a total estimated case-fatality rate of 88%.

The incubation period for needle- transmitted Ebola virus was 5 to 7 days and that for person to person transmitted disease was 6 to 12 days.

Interestingly, in post-epidemic serosurveys in DRC, antibody prevalence to the “Zaire Ebola virus” has been 3 to 7%: this indicates that subclinical infections with the disease agent may well be reasonably common.

The team that discovered the virus at the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium, did so after receiving blood samples in September 1976 from a sick Belgian nun with haemorrhagic symptoms who had been evacuated from Yambuku to Kinshasa in the DRC, for them to investigate a possible diagnosis of yellow fever.  Following her death, liver biopsy samples were also shipped to Antwerp – where the team had already ruled out yellow fever and Lassa fever.  Because of the severe nature of the disease, and its apparently novel agent, the World Health Organisation (WHO) arranged that samples be sent to other reference centres for haemorrhagic viruses, including the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, USA.

The Belgian team were the first to image the virus derived from cell cultures on an electron microscope – when it was obvious that the only thing it resembled was Marburg virus. 

Image copyright CDC / Frederick A Murphy, 1976

Image copyright CDC / Frederick A Murphy, 1976

The CDC quickly confirmed that it was Marburg-like, with possibly the most famous virus image in the world, but that it was a distinct and new virus.

This meant it needed a name – and it was given one derived from the Ebola River that was supposed to be near the town of Yambuku.

Google map of the area where the first Ebola haemorrhagic fever outbreaks occurred

Google map of the area where the first Ebola haemorrhagic fever outbreaks occurred

Another, minor outbreak of the virus occurred in June 1997 in Tandala in north-western DRC: one young child died, and virus was recovered from her – and subsequent investigations showed that “two previous clinical infections with Ebola virus had occurred in 1972 and that about 7% of the residents had immunofluorescent antibodies to the virus”. This further reinforced the idea that subclinical infections were possible.

Sudan virus

In June 1976 – before the Yambuku epidemic in DRC –  an outbreak of a haemorrhagic fever began in the southern Sudanese town of Nzara.  The presumed index case was a storekeeper in a cotton factory, who was hospitalised on June 30th, and died within a week.

There were a total of 284 cases in this outbreak: there were 67 in Nzara, where it is presumed to have originated, and where infection spread from factory workers to their familes.  There were also 213 in Maridi, a few hours drive away – where, as in Yambuku, the outbreak was amplified by “nosocomial” or hospital-acquired transmission in a large hospital. In this case, transmission seems to have been associated with nursing of patients.  The incubation period in this outbreak was 7 – 14 days, with a case mortality rate of 53%.

Two viral isolates were made from sera from Maridi hospital patients in November 1976. Antibodies to the now-identified “Ebola virus” from DRC were detected in 42 of 48 patients clinically-diagnosed patients from Maridi – but in only 6 of 31 patients from Nzara.  However, it was subsequently shown that the Sudan and DRC Ebola viruses were different enough from one another to be separate viral species (see later), which undoubtedly affected the results.

Interestingly, 19% of the Maridi case contacts had antibodies to the virus – with very few of them with any history of illness.  This strongly indicates that the Sudan virus can cause mild or even subclinical infections.

An indication of the possible origin of the epidemic is the fact that 37% of the workers in the Nzara cotton factory appeared to have been infected, with 6 independently-acquired infections – and that this was concentrated in the cloth room, where there were numerous rats as well as thousands of insectivorous bats in the roof.  However, subsequent study of antibodies in the bats failed to detect evidence of infection, and no virus was isolated from bat tissue.

There was another outbreak of the same type of Ebola haemorrhagic fever in the area of Nzara in July – October 1979: this resulted in 34 cases, 22 of them fatal, with the index patient working at the cotton factory and all others being infected via the hospital he was admitted to.  It is interesting that antibodies to the Sudan virus were detected in 18% of adults not associated with the outbreak, leading the report’s authors to speculate that the virus was endemic in this region.

It was thought that the Sudan and DRC outbreaks were linked: the original WHO Bulletin report on the Sudan outbreak even speculates that extensive truck-borne commercial goods traffic between Bumba in DRC and Nzara in what is now South Sudan could have caused the DRC outbreak.  However, comparisons between the viruses isolated from the two epidemics later showed that they were distinct, both in terms of virulence, and antigenicity – meaning the Sudan virus got its own name.

Epidemics and outbreaks have resulted from person to person transmission, nosocomial or in-hospital spread, or laboratory infections. The mode of primary infection and the natural ecology of these viruses are unknown. Association with bats has been implicated directly in at least 2 episodes when individuals entered the same bat-filled cave in Eastern Kenya. Ebola infections in Sudan in 1976 and 1979 occurred in workers of a cotton factory containing thousands of bats in the roof. However, in all early instances, study of antibody in bats failed to detect evidence of infection, and no virus was isolated form bat tissue.

Back to Contents

A Short History of the Discovery of Viruses

6 March, 2015

Now much updated, streamlined, added to and otherwise tarted up!  This is the Web version of an iBook, which you can get here for a limited time.

history cover2

Part 1: Filters and Discovery

Part 2: The Ultracentrifuge, Eggs and Flu

Part 3: Phages, Cell Culture and Polio

Part 4: RNA Genomes and Modern Virology

Sidebar 1: The Discovery of Filoviruses

Sidebar 2: Papillomaviruses and Human Cancer

Sidebar 3: Epstein-Barr Virus and Hepatitis B Virus

Sidebar 4: Human Retroviruses and Cancer

Sidebar 5: Maize Streak Virus: The Early History

Sidebar 6: Rinderpest and Its Eradication

Sidebar 7: Viruses and human cancer: the molecular age

Copyright Edward P Rybicki and Russell Kightley, February and March 2015, except where otherwise noted.

Happy centenary, phages!

17 February, 2015

Here am I, writing a not-so-brief history of the the discovery of viruses, and I miss The Centenary of the Phage!  How did THAT happen?!

Seriously: it took an email from Virologica Sinica alerting me to their commemorative issue, to jolt me into a better state of historical awareness.


I wrote elsewhere:

Eaters of Bacteria: The Phages

Two independent investigations led to the important discovery of viruses that infect bacteria: in 1915, Frederick Twort in the UK accidentally found a filterable agent that caused the bacteria he was growing to lyse, or burst open.  While he was not sure whether or not it was a virus, Félix d’Hérelle in Paris published in 1917 that he had discovered a virus that lysed a bacterial agent he was culturing that causeddysentery, or diarrhoea.  He named the virus “bacteriophage”, or eater of bacteria, derived from the Greek term “phagein”, meaning to eat.

The discovery of bacteriophages was a landmark in the history of virology, as it meant that for the first time it was relatively easy to work with viruses: many kinds of bacteria could be grown in solid or liquid culture quite easily, and the life cycle of the viruses could be studied in detail.”

"Twort" by Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 7, No. 20. (Nov., 1951), pp. 504-517.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Twort” by Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 7, No. 20. (Nov., 1951), pp. 504-517.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

And so it has come to be: the study of phages helped to establish virology as a science, in the era before tissue culture and accurate assay of animal viruses; the birth of molecular biology was pretty much due to the famous Phage Group – and phages turn out to be possibly the most abundant form of life in the known galaxy.

Moreover, the wheel of phage therapy espoused by Félix d’Hérelle has turned full circle, with formerly-scorned Soviet-era institutes now suddenly courted by biotech companies: the Virologica Sinica issue has a an editorial review on the subject, and there is another review on the history of the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, complete with a picture of d’Hérelle there in the 1930s.

So, congratulations Frederick Twort, on the centenary of your discovery.  Your “ultramicroscopic viruses” have gone from strength to strength; your name is remembered – albeit shamefully late – and we really should think of how to put phages more into the public eye.

Figuratively and literally, possibly B-)



PS: I discover to my delight that there is an entire site devoted to The Year of Phage, which has some amazing art as well as an entire book available for download.  Get yours NOW!

A Short History of the Discovery of Viruses – Part 4

11 February, 2015

RNA Genomes and Modern Virology

RNA as genetic material

While it had been known since Bawden and Pirie’s work in 1937 that TMV particles contained RNA, followed later by a number of other viruses, it must be remembered that DNA had only really been accepted as the genetic material of cells and viruses after the Hershey-Chase experiment in 1952 and the Watson-Crick demonstration of the nature of DNA in 1953.  Moreover, the way in which the information in DNA was used to make proteins was still very obscure in the 1950s, given that the proof that RNA was used as a template for the production of proteins was only provided in 1961 by Marshall Nirenberg.

It was hailed as a major development in molecular biology, therefore, when between 1955 and 1957, Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat, B Singer and Robley C Williams demonstrated that it was possible to reconstitute fully infectious TMV from separately-purified preparations of coat protein and RNA.  At the time it was assumed that neither of the two components was infectious on its own; however it was subsequently shown by Fraenkel-Conrat and Singer, and separately by A Gierer and G Schramm, that purified TMV RNA was in fact infectious – albeit several hundred times more weakly per unit mass than the native or reconstituted particles.

While this was revolutionary in itself, the clinching experiment was the proof that mixed reconstitution – or the reassembly of a RNA of one strain of TMV with the coat protein of another – followed by infection of plants resulted in particles made of protein specified by the RNA component rather than being determined by the protein donor.  This work possibly represents the birth of molecular virology as a sub-discipline within molecular biology, given that the molecular nature of viruses had so conclusively been shown – vindicating the prescient remark made by the virus pioneer Thomas Rivers in 1941, on the occasion of the presentation of a gold medal to Wendell Stanley, that:

“In fun, it has been said that we do not know whether to speak of the unit of this infectious agent [TMV] as an “organule” or a “molechism”” (p.7, CA Knight, Chemistry of Viruses 2nd Edn., 1975. Springer-Verlag, Wien)

Further important developments with TMV included the demonstration in 1958 by Gierer and KW Mundry that TMV mutants with altered genomes could be produced by treatment of virions with nitrous acid, which only alters nucleic acids, and the sequencing of the TMV coat protein in 1960 by two groups including Fraenkel-Conrat and Stanley and Knight in one, and Schramm in the other.

Between 1953 and 1954, an interesting class of new viruses was discovered in humans, birds, and later in other animals too.  These were dubbed “respiratory enteric orphans” based on where they were found, and the fact they were not associated with any disease – which gave rise to the name “reovirus”, and their description as a distinct group of viruses by

Human rotavirus, in the family Reoviridae.  Russell Kightley Media

Human rotavirus, in the family Reoviridae. Russell Kightley Media

Albert Sabin in 1959.  By 1962 the unique double-layered capsid morphology had been seen and the virions shown to contain RNA, and then in 1963 PJ Gomatos and I Tamm showed using physical and chemical techniques that the viruses as well as the similar wound tumour virus isolated from plants had a genome consisting of double-stranded (ds) RNA – a finding unprecedented in biology at the time.  Gomatos and W Stoeckenius  went on to show in 1964 – by electron microscopy – that the reovirus genome was also segmented – another unprecedented finding for viruses. In the 1963 paper the authors remark that “…all attempts to isolate the nucleic acid of reovirus in an infective form have failed” – which distinguished these viruses from the ssRNA viruses previously looked at – not surprisingly, given the requirement for a different replication method for dsRNA compared to viruses like TMV or poliovirus (see here).

Ribosomes translating protein from a messenger RNA molecule

Ribosomes translating protein from a messenger RNA molecule

A major highlight in molecular biology in 1961 was Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei’s 1961 demonstration of “…an assay system in which RNA serves as an activator of protein synthesis in E. coli extracts”, or the proof in an in vitro translation system that RNA was the “messenger” that conveyed genetic information into proteins.

In 1962, A Tsugita, Fraenkel-Conrat, Nirenberg and Matthaei used the still extremely novel in vitro translation system with purified TMV genomic RNA, and were able to show that:

“The addition of TMV-RNA to a cell-free amino acid incorporating system derived from E. coli caused up to 75-fold stimulation in protein synthesis (C14-incorporation). Part of the protein synthesized formed a specific precipitate with anti-TMV serum.”, indicating that TMV coat protein had been made.

This was the first demonstration of in vitro translation from any specific mRNA, and incidentally also direct proof that the single-stranded TMV genome was “messenger sense”.  They also concluded that their result showed that the newly-determined “genetic code” – the nucleotide triplets that code for individual amino acids – was universal, given that it was a tobacco virus RNA being translated by a bacterial system.

Later in 1962, D Nathans and colleagues used coliphage f2 RNA as template for translation in the same type of bacterial extract.  They showed that polypeptides corresponding to the coat as well as other proteins were made, showing that it was the input virion RNA that was responsible.

Modern virology

The proof that RNA was both the “messenger” that conveyed information from DNA to be made into protein, and was in fact a genetic material in its own right, made possible a revolution in virology that transformed it into the science we know today.  The new molecular biology together with well-established physical and biochemical techniques for molecular characterisation, coupled with the ability to reliably culture bacterial, plant and now animal viruses as well, enabled an explosion of discovery that continues to this day. 

A tour de force experiment in the modern molecular biological era was the in vitro synthesis of an infectious phage RNA genome by S Spiegelman and coworkers in 1965, using only purified Qbeta coliphage single-stranded virion RNA and the purified viral replicase.   They remarked:

“The successful synthesis of a biologically active nucleic acid with a purified enzyme is itself of obvious interest. However, the implication which is most pregnant with potential usefulness stems from the demonstration that the replicase is, in fact, generating identical copies of the viral RNA. For the first time, a system has been made available which permits the unambiguous analysis of the molecular basis underlying the replication of a self-propagating nucleic acid.”

In 1967 there followed the demonstration that the same could be done for a single-stranded (ss)-DNA virus: M Goulian and colleagues reported in that they had successfully made a completely synthetic and infectious PhiX174 coliphage genome, by means of a series of syntheses using purified virion ssDNA, E coli DNA polymerase and a “polynucleotide-joining enzyme”, or DNA ligase.  It is instructive that the authors offer this as evidence for the involvement of the same enzymes in E coli chromosomal replication, the mechanism for which which was still obscure at the time.  Their justification for their work:

“If enzymatic synthesis of infectious bacteriophage DNA were achieved, it would be made clear at once that relatively few, if any, mistakes had been made in replicating a DNA sequence of several thousand nucleotides.”

– was undoubtedly borne out, in yet another example in the growing number of cases of the use of viruses to demonstrate important facets of cellular biology.

Naked nucleic acids as infectious agents: viroids

A potato disease that had been known in the New York and New Jersey state areas in the US since the 1920s was the source of an exciting discovery by Theodor (Ted) Diener and WB Raymer, reported in Science in 1967.  The potato spindle tuber disease agent had proved recalcitrant over many years to being characterised or isolated; all that was known was that it could be transmitted mechanically using sap, or via grafting, and that no fungi, bacteria or viruses could be isolated from diseased material.  Diener and Raymer showed that:

“Infectious entities, extractable, with phosphate buffer, from tissue infected with potato spindle tuber virus and inciting symptoms on tomato that are typical of this virus, have properties incompatible with those of conventional virus particles. …[Their properties] suggest that the extractable infectious agent may be a double-stranded RNA.”

By 1971 Diener had determined that

“…the infectious RNA occurs in the form of several species with molecular weights ranging from 2.5 × 104 to 1.1 × 105 daltons. No evidence for the presence in uninoculated plants of a latent helper virus was found. Thus, potato spindle tuber “virus” RNA, which is too small to contain the genetic information necessary for self-replication, must rely for its replication mainly on biosynthetic systems already operative in the uninoculated plant.”

This was a revolutionary concept: an infectious, pathogenic entity in the form of a naked RNA that was too small to encode a replicase or any other protein.  He proposed the term “viroid” to designate this and similar agents, a term that persists up to today.  By 1979, they were known to be single-stranded circular RNA molecules with a high degree of sequence self-complementarity, which results in them appearing as “highly base-paired rods”.

Reverse transcription and tumour viruses

While it was apparent in the 1960s that there were single-and double-stranded DNA and RNA viruses, it was only in 1970 that two back-to-back papers in Nature, by Howard Temin and S Mituzami, and David Baltimore respectively, revealed a highly novel viral replication strategy.  They showed that “RNA tumour viruses” such as the agents found by Ellerman and Bang and Peyton Rous contained an enzyme activity named reverse transcriptase – a colloquial term for RNA-dependent DNA polymerase – in their virions, which converted the single-stranded RNA genomes into double-stranded DNA. Later this was shown to result in resulted in insertion of the DNA into the host cell genome, vindicating Howard Temin’s 1960 proposal that “…a RNA tumor virus can give rise to a DNA copy which is incorporated into the genetic material of the cell”.

When Francis Crick formulated his ”Central Dogma” in 1956, it was indisputable that genetic information flowed from DNA to progeny DNA, from DNA to RNA, and from messenger RNA to protein – while he only postulated no return information flow from protein, it was generally assumed that this was also true for RNA

In the words of David Baltimore, in his Nature article:

“Two independent groups of investigators have found evidence of an enzyme in virions of RNA tumour viruses which synthesizes DNA from an RNA template. This discovery, if upheld, will have important implications not only for carcinogenesis by RNA viruses but also for the general understanding of genetic transcription: apparently the classical process of information transfer from DNA to RNA can be inverted.”

This gives rise to a modified Central Dogma, where information flows from DNA to DNA, from DNA to RNA, from RNA to RNA, from RNA to DNA, and from RNA to protein.  It is interesting that RNA seems central to this flow – which, incidentally, strengthens the proposal that RNA is the original genetic material.

Baltimore and Temin both received a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1975 for their discovery of reverse transcriptase – and shared it with Renato Dulbecco, who was credited with clarifying the process of infection and of cellular transformation by DNA tumour viruses.  He used the double-stranded (ds) DNA polyomavirus SV40: this was originally isolated from monkeys, but shown to cause a variety of tumours in a number of experimental animals, hence the name “poly-oma”. 

He and colleagues showed that polyomavirus grew and could be assayed normally in certain cell cultures, but caused tumour-like transformation of cells in others in which it did not grow.  They showed that transformed cell chromosomes contained covalently integrated viral DNA termed a provirus, which was active in producing mRNA which made virus-specific proteins.  Thus, his work was the first to show how DNA viruses might cause cancer, and he and his colleagues deserved their award “…for their discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell.

Viral genome cloning and sequencing: the new age

The techniques of recombinant DNA technology – or the artificial introduction of genetic material from one organism into the genome of another – were pioneered between 1971 and 1973 by Paul Berg, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen.  In 1971 Berg performed an in vitro exercise in which a segment of the lambda phage genome was ligated into the purified DNA of SV40, which had been linearised using the then-new restriction endonuclease, EcoRI.  Cohen, Annie Chang, Boyer and Robert Helling took the technology further in 1973 by showing that:

“The construction of new plasmid DNA species by in vitro joining of restriction endonuclease-generated fragments of separate plasmids is described. Newly constructed plasmids that are inserted into Escherichia coli by transformation are shown to be biologically functional replicons that possess genetic properties and nucleotide base sequences from both of the parent DNA molecules.”

Cloning had arrived – made possible in part by use of viruses.  The fundamental nature of this advance of molecular biology was rewarded by a half share of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Paul Berg.

Nucleotide sequencing, or the determination of the order of bases in nucleic acids, started with laborious, difficult techniques such as the two-dimensional fractionation of enzyme digests of 32P-labelled for RNA described by Frederick Sanger and colleagues in 1965.  DNA sequencing followed in 1970: Ray Wu described the use of E coli DNA polymerase and radiolabelled nucleotides to sequence the single-stranded ends of phage lambda DNA. He and colleagues followed this with a more general method in 1973, using extension of synthetic oligonucleotide “primers” annealed to target DNA

Walter Gilbert and Allan Maxam published in February 1977 an immediately popular paper entitled “A new method for sequencing DNA”.  This became known as Maxam-Gilbert sequencing, or the chemical method, as it entailed sequencing by chemical degradation.  Also in 1977, however, Frederick Sanger and colleagues adapted the Wu technique to come up with the so-called Sanger method, or “DNA sequencing with chain-terminating inhibitors“: this soon became the industry standard for at least the next twenty years, because it was easier and cheaper than the chemical method.

Gilbert and Sanger were awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980, for their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids“.

MS2 phage sequencing

A highlight of Ed Rybicki’s introduction to the world of viruses was discovering during his Honours year in 1977, the paper in Nature in 1976 by Walter Fiers and his coworkers on completing the genome sequencing of the ssRNA E coli phage, MS2.  They had previously also been responsible for the first ever gene sequence, in 1972: this was of the coat protein gene from the same virus.  This was a landmark publication, because it completed the work of years by their group by sequencing the replicase gene, using the ribonuclease digestion and genome fragmentation and two-dimensional electrophoresis technique from Sanger.  Moreover, they proposed a secondary structure for the replicase gene based on intrasequence complementarity, and described it eloquently as follows:

“The secondary structure of the coat gene resembles a flower, and there are similar foldings in other parts of the molecule; the secondary structure of the whole viral RNA therefore constitutes a bouquet”.

Their achievement looks modest in retrospect, in this era of high-throughput sequencing – however, it is worth remembering that at this time in 1976,

“MS2 is the first living organism for which the entire primary chemical structure has been elucidated”. 

Depiction of the linear sequence of MS2 phage.  The maturation (M), coat (CP) and replicase (Rep) genes and proteins were known at the time of sequencing; the lysis gene that partially overlaps the Rep open reading frame was shown to be functional only in 1982

Depiction of the linear sequence of MS2 phage. The maturation (M), coat (CP) and replicase (Rep) genes and proteins were known at the time of sequencing; the lysis gene that partially overlaps the Rep open reading frame was shown to be functional only in 1982

While this comprised just 3569 nucleotides, encoding only three genes, this  is sufficient to constitute a self-replicating entity with an independent evolutionary history.

The immediate value of their work was that it provided a basis for understanding the biology of the interaction of the genome with the bacterial cell at the molecular level.  Moreover, the proposed secondary structures also helped explain how such a simple genome managed to temporally regulate its own expression – by means of long-distance interactions between different areas of the sequence.

PhiX174 phage sequencing

The next complete viral genome sequenced was that of the circular single-stranded DNA coliphage PhiX174, in 1977 by Sanger and his team in Cambridge, using the new sequencing technique invented by them.  The abstract of their paper reads:

“A DNA sequence for the genome of bacteriophage phi X174 of approximately 5,375 nucleotides has been determined using the rapid and simple ‘plus and minus’ method. The sequence identifies many of the features responsible for the production of the proteins of the nine known genes of the organism, including initiation and termination sites for the proteins and RNAs. Two pairs of genes are coded by the same region of DNA using different reading frames.“

This was the first complete genome sequenced for any DNA-containing organism, and a satisfying conclusion to many decades of work on the virus.  One of the most interesting features of the sequence was the fact that several of the 11 genes  are highly overlapping: that is, the same DNA sequence is used to encode completely different genes in different open reading frames.  This represented an economy of use of genetic information that was hitherto unknown. 

Ed Rybicki was also able to greatly impress his Honours external examiner – one DR Woods – by launching into a detailed account of the sequencing and the genetic implications, when asked “What did you find interesting in the literature this year?”

SV40 sequencing

The simian vacuolating virus 40, or SV40, was discovered in 1960 by Ben Sweet and Maurice Hilleman as a contaminant of live attenuated polio vaccines made between 1955 and 1961: this was as a result of use of vervet or African green monkey cells that were inadvertently infected with SV40 to grow up the polioviruses.  As a consequence, between 1955 and 1963 up to 90% of children and 60% of adults – 98 million people – in the USA were inadvertently inoculated with live SV40.  Given the demonstration by  Bernice  Eddy and others in 1962 that hamsters inoculated with simian cells infected with SV40 developed sarcomas and ependymomas, the class of viruses including SV40 and MPyV described earlier became known as “polyomaviruses”, and DNA tumour viruses.  However, and despite considerable concern over many years, SV40 has not been shown to cause or to definitively be associated with any human cancers.

Still, it had become an object of considerable interest as mentioned earlier in connection with Renato Dulbecco, and it was accordingly the next virus to be completely sequenced.  This was by Walter Fier’s group: they determined by Maxam-Gilbert sequencing that the circular dsDNA genome comprised 5224 base pairs, and had an interesting organisation.  In their words:

“Particular points of interest revealed by the complete sequence are the initiation of the early t and T antigens at the same position and the fact that the T antigen is coded by two non-contiguous regions of the genome; the T antigen mRNA is spliced in the coding region. In the late region the gene for the major protein VP1 overlaps those for proteins VP2 and VP3 over 122 nucleotides but is read in a different frame.”

Linear depiction of the circular SV40 genome and its protein coding capacity.  Regions of RNA spliced out of of transcribed genomic sequence, and the direction of transcription, are shown as red arrows.  Genes shown are those depicted in the current Genbank sequence entry.

Linear depiction of the circular SV40 genome and its protein coding capacity. Regions of RNA spliced out of of transcribed genomic sequence, and the direction of transcription, are shown as red arrows. Genes shown are those depicted in the current Genbank sequence entry.

This was the first time that RNA splicing had been demonstrated for an entire genome; indeed, it had only been discovered in 1977 when two separate groups of researchers showed that adenovirus-specific mRNAs made late in the replication cycle in cell cultures were mosaics, being comprised of sequences from noncontiguous or separated sites in the viral genome.  This was subsequently found to be a common feature in eukaryotic but not prokaryotic mRNAs.

The SV40 genome showed major gene overlaps, as for the PhiX174, again demonstrating the effectiveness with which viruses could pack protein coding capability into a small genome

Sequencing of a viroid

Also in 1978, Heinz Sänger’s group published the sequence and the predicted secondary structure of potato spindle tuber viroid.  This was the first RNA genome to be sequenced using the still relatively new method of generating complementary DNA (cDNA) from RNA by use of reverse transcriptase.

They stated in their Nature paper abstract that:

“PSTV is the first pathogen of a eukaryotic organism for which the complete molecular structure has been established”.

This was absolutely true, as the detailed 3D structure of SV40 was not known, even though the genome sequence was.

Sequencing of the first human polyomavirus

In October and December of 1979, two groups published the complete nucleotide sequences of two strains of the polyomavirus known as BKV: this had been first isolated from a renal transplant patient with those initials in 1971, and found to be present in about 80% of healthy blood donors.  It causes only mild infectionsfever and respiratory symptoms – on first infection, and then subsequently infects cells in the kidneys and urinary tract, where it can remain causing no symptoms for the lifetime of infected individuals.  It is associated with renal dysfunction in immunocompromised people, and “BK nephropathy” in transplant patients, when immunosuppressive drugs allow destructive viral multiplication within the donated organ.

The viral sequences differed by 190 nucleotides from one another, and the first-published MM strain sequence was shown to have a strikingly similar arrangement of putative genes to SV40, and to share 70% sequence homology and 73% predicted amino acid sequence homology with SV40.  It also shared 75% genome sequence homology with the JC polyomavirus, first isolated in 1971 from a patient with progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML).  It is found in between 70 and 90% of humans, but as with BKV, is only associated with disease in immunosuppressed or immunodeficient people.

The hepatitis B virus genome

The involvement of HBV in human disease has already been described, as has its potential to cause human cancers.  The complete genome sequence of an E coli genomic clone of the “subtype ayw” strain of HBV was reported by Francis Galibert and co-workers in 1979.  This consisted of 3182 nucleotides, arranged as what had previously been shown by physicochemical techniques on DNA isolated from virions to be a circular structure with a “-” strand with a short gap, and an incomplete “+” strand of varying length.  The reason for this was puzzling, and was attributed to virion assembly requirements, although the covalently closed circular form of this and related viruses (duck hepatitis), like genomes of polyoma- and papillomaviruses, had been isolated.  The reason for this would have to wait a few years, and would result in a new class of viruses being recognised that would reflect very deep evolutionary links between viruses and cellular elements.

The HBV genome. "HBV Genome" by T4taylor - Own work based on File:HBV_genome.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

The HBV genome.
“HBV Genome” by T4taylor – Own work based on File:HBV_genome.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Cauliflower mosaic virus

The first of what are now known to be caulimoviruses – family Caulimoviridae – was described in 1933 as dahlia mosaic virus. Cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) was described in 1937, and shown to have particles containing a DNA genome in 1968.  This was visualised by electron microscopy by two groups in 1971 as relaxed open circles or also as linear forms – unlike the supercoiled DNAs of papilloma- or papovaviruses.  By 1977 it was known that the “nicked circular form” was infectious, and fragments of the genome had been cloned in E coli. Physical and biochemical characterisation of the genome in 1978 showed that it consisted of three discrete lengths of single-stranded DNA – alpha, beta and gamma, with alpha being the full genome-length – that annealed to one another to give a circular double-stranded form about 8 000 nucleotides in length.  By 1979 it was known that only the alpha strand was transcribed to give mRNA.

The complete sequence of the viral genome was published in 1980, and was predicted to encode six proteins: this has since been upped to eight, with two small ORFs (VII and VIII) being shown to produce proteins.  The genome is transcribed into only two mRNAs – named 35S and 19S,  on the basis of their sedimentation properties – and contains one discontinuity in the alpha or coding strand, and two in the non-coding sequence.  Cloned DNA was also shown to be infectious in 1980, even if excised as a linear molecule.

Diagram showing a depiction of the CaMV genome in red, with single-strand discontinuities shown as yellow triangles.  mRNA species are shown in blue: the 35S RNA is longer-than-genome-length, with a ~200 bp repeat at the 5’ and 3’ ends.  ORFs as presently known are shown in green.  Redrawn from Figure 8.1 of REF Mathews’ “Plant Virology”, 3rd edition.

Diagram showing a depiction of the CaMV genome in red, with single-strand discontinuities shown as yellow triangles. mRNA species are shown in blue: the 35S RNA is longer-than-genome-length, with a ~200 bp repeat at the 5’ and 3’ ends. ORFs as presently known are shown in green.
Redrawn from Figure 8.1 of REF Mathews’ “Plant Virology”, 3rd edition.

A new class of viruses

In 1971, David Baltimore of reverse transcriptase and future Nobel Prize fame published a review in which he described the “Expression of Animal Virus Genomes” as it was then understood.  This described a scheme for classifying viruses on the basis of the pathways taken to make messenger RNA – because, in his words,

“The specific mechanism for mRNA synthesis used by a given virus depends on the structure of the viral genetic material”,

which in turn meant that the different means used to arrive at the same end were useful in functionally grouping viruses together.

He proposed 6 classes of viral expression.  These were:

  • Class I: all dsDNA viruses
  • Class II: ssDNA viruses
  • Class III: dsRNA viruses
  • Class IV: ssRNA viruses whose mRNA sequences are subsets of the virion RNA sequence (ie: ss(+)RNA viruses)
  • Class V: ssRNA viruses with genomes which  are complementary in sequence to the mRNA sequences (ie: ss(-)RNA viruses)
  • Class VI: ssRNA viruses which have a DNA intermediate in their lifecycle

It is worth remembering that this was proposed only for animal viruses, and that it was not even known at the time whether retroviruses (Class VI) actually made a DNA genome in cells or what their mRNA looked like.  Additionally, remembering that this predated both cloning and sequencing of viral genomes or mRNAs, it was a triumph of biochemistry and molecular biology at the time that as much as was known.  For example, it was only discovered in 1968 that dsRNA-containing reovirus particles also contained an RNA polymerase activity.  Baltimore himself only discovered in 1970 that the ssRNA-containing vesicular stomatitis virus virions also contained an RNA polymerase.  He made the simple but bold and prescient proposition that:

“The discovery of virion [RNA-dependent RNA] polymerases has provided a rationale for an old puzzle in virology. Why is it that infectious nucleic acid can be extracted from the virions of some viruses but not others? Virion polymerases provide the clue to this puzzle; where they exist the nucleic acid is noninfectious, where the nucleic acid is infectious they could not exist or at least they could not serve an obligate role.”

This has held up surprisingly well, to the extent that the Baltimore Classification has been enshrined in the teaching of virology – by me, among others – for more than 40 years, and has been extended to cover all viruses, as the similarities in their route to mRNA synthesis became apparent, whether they infected bacteria, animals or plants.  In light of the discovery detailed below, it is interesting that HBV virions were discovered in 1975 to contain both circular dsDNA and a DNA polymerase activity.  The virion DNA pol could be used in vitro to convert the partially-dsDNA to a 3 kb completely dsDNA.

Baltimore also wisely made room for “…extending the class designations”, which meant that a very important new class of viruses could be neatly slotted in as Class VII, after their confirmation in 1983.  These were dsDNA viruses which have an RNA intermediate in the life cycle, or pararetroviruses as they came to be known – and the first two representatives were the very different duck hepatitis  B virus (DBV) and CaMV, which had been thought of up till then as classical dsDNA viruses

DBV was discovered in 1980, then investigated by Jesse Summers and William Mason, who determined in 1982 that:

“Subviral particles resembling the viral nucleocapsid cores were isolated from persistently infected liver and shown to have a DNA polymerase activity that utilizes an endogenous template and synthesizes both plus- and minus-strand viral DNA. Synthesis of the viral minus-strand DNA utilized an RNA template that was degraded as it was copied. Viral plus-strand synthesis occurred on the completed minus-strand DNA”.

On the basis of this evidence, they proposed a pathway for replication of HBV-like viruses by reverse transcription of a RNA intermediate

The next member of the reverse transcribing Class VII pararetroviruses was described in 1983, by Pierre Pfeiffer and Thomas Hohn.  Interestingly, like retroviruses and unlike the very different HBV model, their model for CaMV replication included a probable tRNA primer for RNA-dependent DNA synthesis initiation.  It is also interesting that CaMV virions did not contain a DNA polymerase activity, unlike HBVs or retroviruses, indicating significant differences in the mode of replication.  However, the demonstration in 1983 of amino acid sequence homology between the retroviral reverse transcriptase and putative polymerases of both HBV and CaMV, cemented the dawning realisation of a whole new class of viruses.

Ed Rybicki remembers vividly the excitement at the Seventh John Innes Symposium in 1986 on “Virus replication and genome interactions”, where evidence was presented for both HBV and CaMV – and strong public disbelief expressed as to whether HBV replicated by this route by none other than Peter Duesberg, who later went on to also doubt that HIV caused AIDS.

Infectious, cloned poliovirus RNA

In 1958, working from the example of Gierer and Scramm with TMV, Hattie Alexander and colleagues demonstrated that RNA extracted from concentrated, partially purified preparations of polioviruses types I and II, that was free of protein and DNA, was infectious in cultured HeLa cells and human amnion cell monolayers. Moreover, the RNA produced progeny virus characteristic of that used to produce the RNA.  The concept of RNA genomes was still new enough at the time to prompt their conclusion that:

“It would seem, therefore, that the virus RNA is the essential infectious agent”.

In the same year, the same was shown by Fred Brown for another distantly related picornavirus, foot and mouth disease virus.  By 1968, it was known – thanks to MF Jacobson and Baltimore and others – that several picornaviruses related to poliovirus appeared to have just one open reading frame (ORF) encoding a single polypeptide encoded in their genomic RNA, and did not make a smaller mRNA. 

In June of 1981, Naomi Kitamura and coworkers published the complete nucleotide sequence of poliovirus I.  They showed it was

“[an] RNA molecule [which] is 7,433 nucleotides long, polyadenylated at the 3′ terminus, and covalently linked to a small protein (VPg) at the 5′ terminus. An open reading frame of 2,207 consecutive triplets spans over 89% of the nucleotide sequence and codes for the viral polyprotein NCVPOO”.

In August 1981, Vincent Racaniello – working in Baltimore’s lab – reported a set of three cDNA clones in E coli spanning the whole of the poliovirus I genome, and also sequenced the genome

Later in 1981, Racaniello used the three clones to construct one contiguous cDNA clone in pBR322, which he successfully used to transfect vervet monkey (=African green monkey) kidney cell cultures, producing infectious wild-type virus with which he produced characteristic plaques in HeLa cells.  This was the first proof that an infectious cDNA construct could be made for an RNA virus – and it is interesting that the construct should not have worked, as there was no mammalian promoter to produce the viral RNA, and it had to rely on an adventitious or cryptic promoter in the plasmid sequence. In any case, it was an excellent example of success of the “just try it” school of experimentation. He has written an excellent account of this – “Thirty years of infectious enthusiasm” – in his popular blog.

Tobacco mosaic virus sequenced

In 1982, P Goelet and five coworkers published the complete nucleotide sequence of the Vulgare strain of tobacco mosaic virus.  They did this by using reverse transcriptase and synthetic oligonucleotide primers to generate a set of short, overlapping complementary DNA fragments covering the whole TMV genome, cloning these in bacteriophage M13, and using the Sanger dideoxy method to determine the sequences :…of more than 400 independently derived cDNA clones”.  Their complete sequence confirmed earlier partial sequences derived by direct RNA sequencing techniques, as well as confirming quite pronounced sequence variability within the isolate, especially at the 5’ end.

The length of the consensus sequence they produced has to be dug for in the paper, incidentally, as nowhere do the authors in fact simply state what it is – or in fact give a diagram of the genetic organisation! 

Depiction of the TMV genome and transcription and translation strategy

Depiction of the TMV genome and transcription and translation strategy

They report a 6 395 nucleotide sequence, with just three major ORFs.  However, the presence of an amber or leaky stop codon explained how two different N-coterminal proteins could be made by translation of genomic RNA, and separate ribosome binding sites for the two genomic 3’ ORFs plus the already proven existence of subgenomic 3’-coterminal mRNAs, explained how the other proteins could be made. Their was also found to be a unique hairpin loop-encoding sequence region for assembly initiation – nicely rounding out pioneering work by PJ Butler and colleagues and Genevieve Lebeurier and others – both published in January 1977, incidentally – on the physical mechanism of assembly, which had shown a single site for assembly nucleation.

The circle closes: TMV understood

The sequencing of TMV almost, but not quite, brought to a complete circle the journey of discovery that started with its description as a “contagium vivum fluidum” in 1898.  Closing the circle required a complete molecular understanding of the virus particle, which was achieved with the publication from Gerald Stubbs’ group of the 3.6 Angstrom resolution structure for TMV in 1986, and then the refined 2.9 A structure in 1989.  In their words,

The final model contains all of the non-hydrogen atoms of the RNA and the protein, 71 water molecules, and two calcium-binding sites.

This allowed the building of molecular models that helped explain the chemical and physical basis for virion self-assembly, as well as accounting for the positioning in particles of the whole RNA and the whole of the more than 2000 individual protein subunit sequences.

TMV atomic model

The structure also brought to a conclusion a journey that had started as early as 1936, after Stanley’s demonstration that TMV could be crystallised.  Gerald Stubbs has written an excellent account in the book “Tobacco Mosaic Virus: One Hundred Years of Contributions to Virology” of how JD Bernal and I Fankuchen used “liquid crystalline” gels of TMV provided by Bawden and Pirie, and RWG Wyckoff and RB Corey used crystals of TMV, to obtain X-ray diffraction patterns.  While Bernal and Fankuchen were not able to do more than obtain the radius of the virions, and the dimensions of the protein subunits as well as their repeat along the virion axis, they laid the foundations for others to work not only on helical viruses, but also on DNA and RNA helices.

Rosalind Franklin of DNA structure fame took on the study of TMV structure using the then-new method of isomorphous replacement to first, in 1956, locate the RNA within virions, and then in 1958 with Kenneth Holmes, to determine that the virions were indeed helical in structure – something first proposed by James Watson in 1954, although he did not see they were also hollow.  Indeed, Crick and Watson used her TMV structure results to bolster their proposal in 1956 that virions  of small viruses were built up according to simple rules of symmetry from identical protein subunits surrounding the nucleic acid.

Franklin died in 1958, which may have denied her a share of the Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA that went to Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1962.

Holmes and Stubbs continued the work on TMV, however, and published a 6.7 A structure in 1975: this showed that an 11 A structure seen by Bernal and Fankuchen in 1936 was in fact alpha helices within subunits.  They went on with Steven Warren in 1977 to obtain a 4 A structure which showed the structure of RNA and the RNA binding site of the protein.  Stubbs celebrated his group’s subsequent refinements of the structure with this statement in the centenary book on TMV:

“…in 1989, Bernal and Fankuchen’s remarkable patterns finally yielded the fulfillment of Franklin’s vision with the publication of the 2.9 A resolution structure…”

A modest statement for a landmark achievement: the finalising of the complete molecular understanding of the first virus discovered.  The circle was finally closed, 91 years after Beijerinck first showed how a filter could define a new class of organisms.

Click here for Part 1: Filters and Discovery

here for Part 2: The Ultracentrifuge, Eggs and Flu

here for Part 3: Phages, Cell Culture and Polio

Copyright Edward P Rybicki and Russell Kightley, February 2015, except where otherwise noted.

A Short History of the Discovery of Viruses – Part 3

29 January, 2015

Phages, Cell Culture and Polio

The Phage Group and the birth of molecular biology

Some of the more fundamental discoveries in modern biology were facilitated either by the study of viruses, or by use of viruses as tools for exploring host cell mechanisms.  The foundations for this work were laid by Felix d’Hérelle and others, working after 1917 with bacterial viruses in cultured bacteria.  Indeed, Macfarlane Burnet’s first important work was in 1929, showing by use of plaque counting that a single bacterial cell infected with a single phage produced 20 – 100 progeny some 20 minutes following infection.  The fact that phages adsorbed irreversibly to their hosts as part of the infection process was shown by AP Krueger and M Schlesinger in 1930 – 1931.  Schlesinger later showed between 1934 and 1936 that the bacteriophage he worked with consisted of approximately equal amounts of protein and DNA, the first proof that viruses might be nucleoprotein in nature.

However, it took until 1939 for the former physicist Max Delbrück, working with the biologist Emory Ellis at Caltech, to elucidate the growth cycle of a sewage-isolated Escherichia coli bacteriophage in a now-classic paper simply entitled “The Growth of Bacteriophage”.  This used the simple technique of counting plaques in a bacterial lawn in a Petri dish, following infection of a standard bacterial inoculum with a dilution series of a phage preparation.

Their principal finding was that viruses multiply inside cells in one step, and not by division and exponential growth like cells.. This was determined using the so-called “one-step growth curve”, which allowed the accurate determination of the titres of viruses released from bacteria that had been synchronously infected.  This allowed calculation of not only the time of multiplication of the virus, but also the “burst size” from individual bacteria, or the number of viruses produced in one round of multiplication.  This was a fundamental discovery, and allowed the rapid progression of the field of bacterial and phage genetics

Indeed, Wolfgang Joklik wrote in 1999:

Conceptualization of the one-step growth cycle completely changed virology. From then on, populations of host cells were infected with multiplicities greater than 1 infectious unit per cell, which meant that infection was synchronous and that virus replication was amenable to biochemical and, therefore, molecular analysis. This study represents the beginning of molecular virology, molecular biology, and molecular genetics.”

One important facet of this work was that it showed that infection could be caused by single phages: the power of the plaque assay meant that even dilutions of phage preparations that contained only a single particle could produce a detectable plaque.

The Phage Group was started in the 1940s after Delbrück and Salvador Luria – also famous for inventing the Luria broth used to this day to grow bacteria –  met at a conference.  They soon began to collaborate, and in 1943 published the famous Luria–Delbrück experiment or Fluctuation Test: this showed that resistance to phage infection in bacteria could arise spontaneously and without selection pressure.  This was fundamental to understanding bacterial evolution and the development of antibiotic resistance in particular.

Also in 1943, they added Alfred Hershey to the group.  An important early result of their joint work was the proof that co-infection of one bacterium with two different bacteriophages could lead to genetic recombination, or mixing of the phage genomes. 

Hershey and his assistant Martha Chase subsequently went on in 1952 to perform the legendary Hershey-Chase experiment in order to prove whether or not DNA was the genetic material of the phage: this purportedly used a new high speed Waring blender Hershey had purchased for his wife, but which never made it to her.  This was published as “Independent Functions of Viral Protein and Nucleic Acid in Growth of Bacteriophage“, and essentially cemented the central role of DNA as the material of heredity.

The Hershey-Chase Experiment

Building on an observation by RM Herriott in 1951 that phage “ghosts”virus particles that had lost their DNA due to osmotic shock – could still attach to and lyse their target bacteria, they grew up preparations of the E coli bacteriophage T2 separately in the presence of the radioisotopes 35S and 32P, to label the protein and nucleic acid components of the phage respectively.  They confirmed the earlier observations by showing that “plasmolysed” phage ghosts retained nearly all of the 35S and the ability to bind to phage-susceptible bacteria and bind phage-specific antibodies, while the free DNA fraction retained nearly all of the 32P, which was DNAse-susceptible, unlike DNA in intact phages.  Their conclusion was that:

The ghosts represent protein coats that surround the DNA of the intact particles, react with antiserum, protect the DNA from DNase…, and carry the organ of attachment to bacteria”.

However, their most exciting result was achieved by investigating whether “…multiplication of virus is preceded by the alteration or removal of the protective coats of the particles”.  They did this by allowing adsorption of phages to bacteria in liquid suspension for different times, then shearing off adsorbed phage particles from the bacteria using the blender.  Pelleting the bacteria by centrifugation and assaying radioactivity allowed them to determine that over 75% of the 35S – incorporated into cysteine and methionine amino acids – remained in the liquid, or outside the bacteria, whereas over 75% of the 32P – incorporated into the phage DNA – was found inside the bacteria.  They concluded that:

“…the bulk of the phage sulfur remains at the cell surface during infection, and takes no part in the multiplication of intracellular phage. The bulk of the phage DNA, on the other hand, enters the cell soon after adsorption of phage to bacteria.”

Subsequent production of phage from the infected bacteria that contained next to no radioisotope-labelled protein, but did contain labelled DNA, showed that DNA was probably the genetic material, and that protein was not involved in phage heredity.

Aside from their ground-breaking discoveries, the main influence of the Phage Group was felt via their establishment of the yearly summer phage course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. From 1945 through to the 1960s, Delbrück and colleagues taught the fundamentals of bacteriophage biology and experimentation to generations of biologists, which helped to instill a culture of rigorous mathematical and analytical techniques in attendees – many of whom went on to help establish the emerging field of molecular biology.

Indeed, not only did Delbrück, Luria and Hershey receive the 1969 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their work on bacteriophages, but Luria’s first graduate student James Watson was also awarded the prize in 1962 for his work with Francis Crick on elucidating the structure of DNA.  It is a not particularly well known fact that Watson honed his analytical skills for 3-D reconstructions from X-ray data of DNA with data from TMV, which he helped to show had helical virions.

Animal cell culture

Possibly the most important development for the study of animal viruses since their discovery was the growing of poliovirus in cell culture: this was reported in 1949 by John Enders, Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins from the USA, and was rewarded with a joint Nobel Prize to them in 1954.  They did this around the same time as David Bodian and Isabel Morgan identified three distinct types of poliovirus.

In the words of the Award Ceremony presentation speech,

“The use of cultures of human tissues has permitted attacks on many virus problems previously out of reach because of the lack of susceptible laboratory animals. Already at an early stage Enders, Weller and Robbins discovered agents representing a previously unknown group of viruses. Other scientists have systematically pursued this line and the answer to the question of the causes of a number of common-coldlike diseases now seems to be at hand. Weller has succeeded in cultivating the agents causing varicella and herpes zoster, Enders that of measles, viruses previously almost inaccessible for study. The method has also been successfully applied to several problems in the field of veterinary medicine.”

While both bacterial and plant viruses could be both grown and assayed in “culture” – bacterial cells for phages, and plants for viruses like TMV – it was very difficult to grow and work with animal viruses, and especially to assay them, or measure their concentration.  While the pock assay done on egg membranes for influenza virus was very useful, it was not applicable to many viruses.  Indeed, people working with animal and human viruses were envious of the advantages enjoyed by their colleagues working with bacteriophages and plant viruses, because their assay systems were far more generally useful, even if local lesion assays on leaves for plant virus were limited compared to the precision obtainable for bacteriophages using pure cultures of bacterial cells on Petri dishes.  Titration or assay of poliovirus, for example, required the injection of virus preparations into the brains of monkeys, or later, in the case of the Lansing or Type II poliovirus strain, into brains of mice.

The technological advances that led to the breakthrough were incremental, and in fact had occurred over a period of over sixty years: Wilhelm Roux is credited with creating the first “tissue culture” with animal cells, by maintaining extracts of chicken embryos in warmed saline in 1885.  Other early workers had used minced-up chick embryos as far back as the early 1900s; roller-tube cultures had been in use for some time for studying viruses; a number of human and other tissues had been used to culture viruses.  Part of the development was, however, the increased ease of making the necessary reagents, such as ultrafiltered bovine serum, and a greater understanding of the requirements of cells for successful growth in culture.  Another major enabling factor was the post-Second World War availability of antibiotics, which meant contaminating microorganisms could be killed in culture – which had been impossible previously.

Enders, Weller and Robbins started with a suspended cell culture of human embryo skin and muscle tissue – a technique first described in 1928 – with the idea of studying varicella zoster herpesvirus.  However, in a case of chance favouring the prepared mind(s), the proximity of these tissue cultures and the Lansing strain of poliovirus in the same lab led to them using this instead, as part of an effort to determine whether all polioviruses exclusively multiplied in human nervous tissue.

Their cultures were started by inoculation with a suspension of infected mouse brains, and re-inoculation of mice with tissue culture fluids demonstrated that the virus was multiplying.  Injection of fluid into monkey brains after three passages of tissue culture resulted in typical symptoms of paralysis.  Later, Types I and III poliovirus were also successfully cultured – and suspended cell cultures of intestine, liver, kidney, adrenals, brain, heart, spleen, lung and brain derived from human embryos were also found to support growth of various polioviruses.

Renato Dulbecco in 1952 adapted the technique to primary cultures of chicken embryo fibroblasts grown as monolayers in glass flasks.  Using  Western equine encephalitis virus and Newcastle disease virus of chickens, he showed for the first time that it was possible to produce plaques due to an animal virus infection, and that these could be used to accurately assay infectious virus titres.  He and Marguerite Vogt went on in 1953 to show the technique could be used to assay poliovirus – and went on to show that the principle of “one virus, one plaque” first established with phages, and later to plant viruses, could be extended to animal viruses too.

Adaptation of the culture technique to roller-tubes allowed higher yields of virus – and the possibility of direct observation of the effects of virus multiplication on large sheets of cells, rather than in clumps and pieces of tissue from suspension cultures.  These effects were termed “cytopathogenic” (now generally cytopathic) for the direct damage and morphological changes to cells that could be seen and measured, and roller-tubes made it far easier and quicker to do this by simple staining of cultures with various reagents such as haemotoxylin and eosin.

adeno haema

The technique of looking at cells for cytopathic effects (also abbreviated as CPE) quickly found application in assays of infectivity – and therefore of concentration – of poliovirus preparations.  It was also possible to do neutralisation assays with immune human sera.  There was also the observation that passaging the Lansing strain through cell suspensions reduced its virulence in mice, and similar passage of Type I poliovirus significantly reduced virulence in rhesus macaques.  These developments together were part of the advances that led to the development of live poliovirus vaccines soon afterwards.

The development of polio vaccines

Poliomyelitis – the disease caused by polioviruses – became increasingly common as population densities grew, to the point where in the the USA in 1952, there were 58 000 cases of the disease, compared to 20 000 normally – and up to 500 000 people (mainly children) died worldwide

A failed attempt at producing a vaccine in 1936 by a Maurice Brodie involved the use of ground-up infected monkey spinal cords to produce a formaldehyde-killed vaccine: Brodie tested the vaccine on three thousand children, none of whom developed immunity.  Hilary Koprowski in 1948 tested a live type II poliovirus attenuated by passage in rat brains, on himself and a colleague – with no ill effects, but no test of immunogenicity or efficacy.  In 1950 he went on to test the vaccine on 20 children in a home for the disabled, with positive results for immunogenicity.  It is claimed that Albert Sabin’s live attenuated virus (see below) was supplied by Koprowski; however, events overtook him and the other groups supplied the viruses that have been used to largely eradicate the disease, even though Koprowski went on to do huge clinical trials in Africa.

It took the development of cell culture techniques for poliovirus, the finding that there were three distinct types of the virus, as well as the proof in 1953 that immune globulins alone could protect against infection, to enable the successful development of vaccines still used today.  This is very well documented elsewhere; this account will summarise the most important features of the development.

Inactivated polio vaccines

The 1952-1953 polio epidemics in the US led to major public concern, and national efforts to develop vaccines.  Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh.  They produced virulent poliovirus types 1, 2 and 3 in culture in monkey kidney-derived Vero cells, and then used formaldehyde to inactivate the viruses to create an injectable vaccine.   After trials in animals proved that the “Inactivated Poliovirus Vaccine” or IPV was safely killed, it was trialled from 1954 in what was possibly the biggest medical experiment in history, involving 1.8 million children in the US.  By 1955 it was possible to announce that IPV was 60–70% effective against poliovirus type 1, and over 90% effective against types 2 and 3.  The vaccine was licenced in 1955, and immediately used in campaigns for vaccination of at-risk children.  

See heat map showing the number of cases of polio per 100 000 people across the USA.  Copyright Wall St Journal, 2015.

While the vaccine did not in fact prevent infection by the virus – which infects the gastrointestinal tract via the oral route – it prevented disease by means of eliciting a largely IgG-dependent circulating antibody response, which neutralised any virus entering the circulatory system and thus prevented viraemia and subsequent involvement of the nervous system.  This means that it is an excellent vaccine to use as an end-stage weapon in the fight against polio, as unlike the live attenuated vaccine, there is no “shedding” of live virus.

Attenuated live polio vaccines

While others (including Koprowski) were involved in attempting to develop attenuated live vaccines, it was Albert Sabin’s trivalent live attenuated vaccine that was eventually successful.  This was developed by repeated passage in animal and then cell culture, that resulted in the effective abolition of neurovirulence of all three poliovirus types – accompanied by a significant number of mutations in the viral genomes.  After a successful safety trial in institutionalised children in the US in 1954, Sabin worked closely with scientists and the authorities in the former USSR, and in particular Mikhail Chumakov, to first manufacture the vaccine, then to perform large-scale clinical trials between “…1955 and 1961, [when] the oral vaccine was tested on at least 100 million people in the USSR, parts of Eastern Europe, Singapore, Mexico, and the Netherlands”.  While the US was initially reluctant to use the vaccine, the Russian-made product was distributed worldwide, and rapidly usurped the dominance of IPV.  By 1963, however, the trivalent product was licenced in the US, and from 1962-1965 about 100 million doses were used.

Advantages of the “Oral Polio Vaccine” or OPV were that it could be given much more easily – as droplets, into the mouth – that it multiplied efficiently in the gut, meaning doses could be small, but not in nervous tissue so that it caused no disease, and that it elicited mucosal immunity that could prevent infection as well as disease.

Disadvantages of the live vaccine are that it requires a cold chain for transport, otherwise it loses infectivity; that it can be shed in stools by vaccinees, meaning that uncontrolled community spread is possible.  This can result in vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis, either due to reversion of the vaccines to virulence by mutation, or more rarely because of immune deficiencies  in those exposed.  Because of this, and the possibility of persistence of vaccine strains in populations even in the absence of overt disease, the final stages of poliovirus eradication probably require use of IPV in areas where there is no longer any endemic wild-type poliovirus.

While there have been serious concerns about contamination of poliovirus vaccines with live SV40 virus – a known tumour-causing agent – the consensus opinion appears to be that there is no danger.

The rapid development of human virology

These observations also quickly found application with a wide variety of other human and animal viruses, which triggered an explosion in these fields that led to them rapidly overtaking plant and bacterial virology in terms of understanding how the viruses replicated, and developing assays and vaccines for them.  Indeed, the poliovirus work was rapidly followed in the same lab by the isolation of herpes zoster and herpes simplex viruses; the agent of measles was characterised by Thomas Peebles and Enders via tissue culture by 1954; adenoviruses were discovered in 1953 by Wallace Rowe and Robert Huebner and shown to be associated with acute respiratory disease soon afterwards, by Maurice Hilleman and others.

Click here for Part 1: Filters and Discovery

here for Part 2: The Ultracentrifuge, Eggs and Flu

and here for Part 4: RNA Genomes and Modern Virology

Copyright Edward P Rybicki and Russell Kightley, February 2015, except where otherwise noted.

Ebola virus mutating, scientists say

29 January, 2015

Scientists at the Institut Pasteur in France who are tracking the Ebola outbreak in Guinea say the virus has mutated.


I would be surprised it there weren’t evidence by now of adaptation to humans: never in any previous outbreak of EHD [Ebola haemorrhagic disease] has the person-person chain of transmission been sustained for so long, meaning never before has there been the opportunity for human-specific adaptations to become established.

The article points out that on consequence of mutation may be that the virus becomes less virulent, leading to a greater incidence of asymptomatic infection – of which there is already evidence from previous outbreaks, and which has been implicated in the lessening incidence of transmission because of increasing herd immunity.

However, this same property might lead to increased transmission to the non-exposed, because of a lack of signs that contacts with the infected person(s) should be avoided – and for a disease as lethal as EHD, even a reduced mortality rate still means you should avoid it at all costs.

The idea of developing a modified live measles virus vaccine as an Ebola virus vaccine vector, which is what the Institut Pasteur is apparently doing, seems to be a very good one.  Measles is still a major potential problem in that part of the world, necessitating regular infant immunisations, and coupling anti-measles with an anti-Ebola vaccine in those countries is probably very good use of both a proven vaccine and existing EPI infrastructure.


See on Scoop.itVirology News

First Ebola case linked to bat play – really?

30 December, 2014

The Ebola victim who is believed to have triggered the current outbreak – a two-year-old boy called Emile Ouamouno from Guinea – may have been infected by playing in a hollow tree housing a colony of bats, say scientists.

They made the connection on an expedition to the boy’s village, Meliandou.

They took samples and chatted to locals to find out more about Ebola’s source.

The team’s findings are published in EMBO Molecular Medicine.


Really??  Kids played in a hollow tree where bats USED to be – and the bats in which no-one can find Ebola, are the source of the epidemic? Really??

Now even for one who is prepared to believe the worst of bats – which I am; I am on record as calling them fabulous furry flying cockroaches – the evidence here is VERY thin.

Consider the facts in evidence: 

"Villagers reported that children used to play frequently in the hollow tree"

"Emile – who died of Ebola in December 2013 – used to play there, according to his friends."

"The villagers said that the tree burned on March 24, 2014 and that once the tree caught fire, there issued a "rain of bats""

"A large number of these insectivorous free-tailed bats …were collected by the villagers for food, but disposed of the next day after a government-led ban on bushmeat consumption was announced."

"{While] The scientists …were unable to test any of the bushmeat that the villagers had disposed of, they captured and tested any living bats they could find in and around Meliandou."

"No Ebola could be detected in any of these hundred or so animals, however."

"But previous tests show this species of bat can carry Ebola."

So – the chain of logic goes: 

– Kids played in a tree

– One kid got Ebola

– Bats lived in the tree

– Those bats can be infected with Ebola

– Therefore the one kid was infected by those bats.

Really??  You would convict a whole community of bats for that, IN THE ABSENCE OF ANY EVIDENCE they ACTUALLY carried Ebola??

This is thin – very, very thin.  I am also quite happy to believe the Ebola outbreak started with bats, BUT this proves nothing.  More evidence, less hype!!

See on Scoop.itVirology News

2014 in review: ViroBlogy

30 December, 2014

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 31,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 11 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.
SO we’re doing alright, then?? Thanks for reading – here’s to a great 2015!

More Surprises in the Development of an HIV Vaccine

14 November, 2014

More Surprises in the Development of an HIV Vaccine

In the current issue of Frontiers in Immunology, Jean-Marie Andrieu and collaborators, report results from non-human primate experiments designed to explore a new vaccine concept aimed at inducing tolerance to the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) (1). This approach, which is significantly different from other vaccine concepts tested to date, resulted in a surprisingly high level of protection. If the results are confirmed and extended to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), this approach may represent a game changing strategy, which should be welcomed by a field that has been marred by mostly disappointing results.


HIV Graphic from Russell Kightley Media



This is a commentary by two well-respected friends of mine on a very surprising result published by the Andrieu group recently, which seems to have been ignored by the mainstream HIV vaccine world.

This is not surprising, in that Andrieu is an outsider in this field – he is a cancer researcher – but is typical of the disappointing tendency in science to ignore contributions from outside the various "Golden Circles" that exist for various specialties.

Something that should elicit interest, though, is that this group has shown that a previously obscure 

"…population of non-cytolytic MHCIb/E-restricted CD8+ T regulatory cells [that] suppressed the activation of SIV positive CD4+ T-lymphocytes".

This is interesting because Louis Picker’s groups’ recent findings, announced at the recent HIVR4P conference in Cape Town, highlighted the involvement of MHC-E proteins in what amounted to a cure of SIV infection in macaques by a modified Rhesus cytomegalovirus (RhCMV) HIV vaccine vector (see here: 

I tweeted at the time:

"Universal MHC-E-restricted CD8+ T cells – break all the rules for epitope recognition"

Could this be a link between the two mechanisms – both from way outside the orthodoxy, I will point out?

It will be interesting to see.

See on Scoop.itVirology News

Ethical dilemma for Ebola drug trials

13 November, 2014

Public-health officials split on use of control groups in tests of experimental treatments.

With clinical trials of experimental Ebola treatments set to begin in December, public-health officials face a major ethical quandary: should some participants be placed in a control group that receives only standard symptomatic treatment, despite a mortality rate of around 70% for Ebola in West Africa?

Two groups planning trials in Guinea and Liberia are diverging on this point, and key decisions for both are likely to come this week. US researchers meet on 11 November at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, to discuss US-government sponsored trials. A separate group is gathering at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, on 11 and 12 November to confer on both the US effort and trials organized by the WHO with help from African and European researchers and funded by the Wellcome Trust and the European Union.


I have to say – faced with a deadly disease, I think it is UNethical to have control / placebo arms of any trial.

Seriously: what about comparing ZMapp and immune serum, for example, with historical records of previous standard of care outcomes rather than directly?

I know if I were an Ebola patient, and I saw someone else getting the experimental therapy and I didn’t, that I would have a few things to say.

It’s not as if these therapies have not been tested in primates, after all – in fact, both the ChAd3 and MVA-based vaccines and ZMapp have been thoroughly tested in macaques, as have the other therapeutics, with no adverse events there.

I say if people say clearly that they want an experimental intervention, that they should get one: after all, the first use of immune serum was not done in a clinical trial, but rather as a last-ditch let’s-see-if-this-works intervention – yet its use does not seem controversial?

See on Scoop.itVirology News


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