On Earth for millions of years: Viruses

A journey into the world of viruses and paleontological research at Berlin's natural history museum

By Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Yara Haridy by Pablo CastagnolaMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

Viruses have been around for a very long time!

How paleontologist Yara Haridy and her team detected the oldest viruses in the history of the Earth.

Yara Haridy by Pablo CastagnolaMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

The time traveler

Something was wrong with those bones, Yara Haridy was sure. The caudal vertebrae of the lizard-like animal that lived in the Permian – 289 million years ago! – were fused together in an unusual way.

Yara Haridy by Pablo CastagnolaMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

Strange bones

The paleontologist from Berlin’s natural history museum felt over the seam. Had a disease caused the two vertebrae to fuse? And could this possibly be detected inside the bone? She decided to pursue her curiosity – and found clues about the oldest viruses in the world!

Yara Haridy by Pablo CastagnolaMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

The discovery of the past

In 2019, together with colleagues from Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Charité Berlin and University of Toronto, she published her results: The animal suffered from a bone condition similar to Paget’s disease, identified in an isolated pair of tail vertebrae discovered in an Early Permian cave at Richards Spur, Oklahoma.

CT-Labor im Museum für Naturkunde Berlin by Carola Radke, Museum für Naturkunde BerlinMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

Cutting-edge research

Micro-CT scanning at the Museum für Naturkunde allowed to examine both the external and internal structure of the elements, revealing that in some places the bone had been thinned by high levels of reabsorption, while in other areas excessive bone growth had resulted in abnormal bone thickening and the ultimate fusion of the two vertebrae.

μCT internal anatomy of pathological varanopid vertebrae by Yara Haridy et al.Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Jurassic viruses

According to the researchers, this condition is most similar to Paget’s disease, a bone metabolic disorder marked by a breakdown in communication between bone building cells and bone destroying cells. Paget’s disease is commonly seen today in the hips and vertebrae of humans and has been diagnosed in other living mammals and reptiles as well as one Early Jurassic dinosaur fossil. The disease has been linked to both a genetic factor and measles-like virus, though its precise cause remains controversial.

Indirect evidences

With only two vertebrae preserved, it is impossible to say how widespread the disease was in this animal’s body. If it was restricted to the tail, the animal may only have suffered minor pain and stiffness. However, this discovery marked the oldest known occurrence of a Paget-like disease – and suggests that susceptibility to such disorders was already present in our early Permian cousins. It is also the by far oldest indirect evidence of virus in Earth’s history.

Sauriersaal by Hwa Ja Götz, Museum für Naturkunde BerlinMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

When did the first viruses appear?

However, researchers cannot directly detect such ancient viruses – and still today, there are only guesses as to their origin. 

The Biodiversity Wall (new gigapixel panorama) (2007-08)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Who's got it right?

One thesis says that viruses are genes that have become independent – chromosome particles that can no longer be controlled by the host cells. Or did they develop from bacteria by losing cell building blocks? 

Companions of evolution

According to a third popular hypothesis, the first existing cell in the history of the Earth was already infected with viruses. In this case, they would have accompanied all evolutionary steps until today and were constantly producing new forms.

Viruses and bacteria

The latest research results assume that viruses and bacteria are very close to each other. So-called megaviruses were discovered that are larger than bacteria and already have building blocks to be able to carry out protein synthesis – which is actually reserved for bacteria as living beings.

Evolution in Aktion, Charles Darwin by Museum für Naturkunde BerlinMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

Mutation and evolution

Charles Darwin once said that under today's conditions one can no longer understand the beginning of life. The current state of research is: the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago and the first biomolecule 3.8 billion years ago. Scientists still disagree on how these riboenzymes came about. Some believe life came from outer space. These molecules had the ability to duplicate and multiply by adding new molecules, they made copies of themselves. Sometimes that didn't work properly, there were mutations.

Stromatolite: evidence for early oxygen generationMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

Quite a long time!

The first viruses arose before all life. Over time, they adapted to new hosts. The oldest evidence of bacteria is found, for example, in so-called stromatolites, the oldest of which are 3.6 billion years old and were found in Australia. A direct proof of ancient viruses, however, is still not known.

Tyrannosaurus rex "Tristan Otto" at Museum für Naturkunde by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

About T. rex and toothache

As Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science, Berlin’s natural history museum is one of the most important research institutions worldwide in the areas of biological and geological evolution and biodiversity. 

Tyrannosaurus rex "Tristan Otto" - Overall exhibition view by Hwa Ja Götz (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

The evolution of diseases

In one field of its research, all types of diseases that manifest themselves in the skeleton of fossil vertebrates are studied – just like Yara Haridy and her team did with the lizard-like animal: paleopathology.

Tyrannosaurus rex "Tristan Otto" - exhibited at Museum für Naturkunde Berlin by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Paleopathology

Paleopathology opens a view into the depths of prehistoric times, asks questions about the evolutionary origin and the history of diseases and seeks answers.

Tyrannosaurus rex "Tristan Otto" - detailed view of teeth by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Prehistoric diseases

Another object of research, for instance, was Tristan Otto, the famous Tyrannosaurus rex. Scientists examined peculiar swellings at its jaw bones – possibly originating from an infection.

Lebendrekonstruktion Pappochelys rosinae by Brian Engh, dontmesswithdinosaurs.comMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

Triassic "cancer"

Moreover, an international team of paleontologists with the participation of the Museum für Naturkunde, published a cancerous disease of Pappochelys rosinae, a specimen of the oldest turtle in the world from the Triassic period 240 million years ago.

View into the Wet Collection (2) by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Viruses as accelerators of evolution?

The Wet Collections by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Never ending science

In this way, scientists continue finding clues to how viruses may have affected life on Earth. One could say that what happened during the Cold War – a mutual arms race – has been practiced by them for millions of years. It cannot be the intention of a virus to kill the host because that would mean its end.

View into the Wet Collection (2) by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

There are viruses... and viruses

Therefore, in the course of evolutionary interrelationships, there are mutual adjustments, further developments and adjustments again. Sometimes a large number and variety of hosts are available, as is the case with rabies, which can affect many warm-blooded animals. Sometimes the host would become more resilient or the virus not as aggressive – the cold virus, for example.

View into the Wet Collection by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Eternal coexistence

Researchers have been able to prove that viruses have enormously accelerated evolution. Some even see viruses as the engine of evolution, in which viruses have contributed to the exchange of genetic material from the beginning hundreds of millions of years ago.

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