Montana State University

MSU researchers develop new process for discovering viruses

February 3, 2016 -- By Amanda Eggert for the MSU News Service

Montana State University professor Mark Young in his laboratory. Young and other MSU professors and doctoral students have published a paper that outlines a new — and much faster — methodology for discovering viruses. The paper was published in January in the Journal of Virology. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Montana State University professors and doctoral students have published a paper that outlines a new — and much faster — methodology for discovering viruses.

The paper, “Acidianus tailed spindle virus: a new archael large tailed spindle virus discovered by culture independent methods” was published in January in the Journal of Virology, a biweekly journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

This particular virus infects archaea, single-celled microorganisms, that live in the Crater Hills Thermal Basin of Yellowstone National Park. Researchers “combined the tricks of genetics, molecular biology and chemistry in a new way” to discover it, according to Mark Young, one of the paper’s authors and a professor in MSU’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture. Young is also MSU associate vice president for research and economic development.

Rebecca Hochstein, who was awarded a doctorate last fall from MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science, is the study’s lead author. She’s joined by co-authors Max Amenabar and Jacob Munson-McGee, both doctoral candidates in MSU’s microbiology and immunology program.

Acidianus tailed spindle virus, or ATSV, is named for its affinity for acidic environments and its unique long-tailed, large-headed shape. The molecular structure is also unusual.

“This virus is built unlike any other virus we’ve seen in nature before,” Young said. “It looks like it’s built from ropes of protein molecules.”

Although ATSV’s discovery is notable in and of itself, the paper’s particularly far-reaching implications have to do with how the authors discovered it.

Whereas most of the roughly 6,000 viruses we know about are discovered by developing a culture of the virus’s host and then discovering viruses associated with it, study authors used a process almost the reverse of that.

First researchers isolated ATSV’s genetic material and sequenced it. They then used that sequenced genetic information to build a picture of the virus as a whole, which eventually led them to the virus’s host.

The process has already been replicated to discover other viruses.

“Since this paper, we’ve applied it over and over again and are finding many new viruses in both humans and Yellowstone hot springs,” Young said. He added it could be used to discover viruses in oceans, lakes, soils — “almost any environment you could think of.

“I think the very practical [application] of this research is it provides a much more rapid way to discover viruses and greatly expands our understanding of viral diversity on the planet and the role viruses play in the ecology and evolution of life,” Young said.

Viruses are part of an interdependent evolution that has helped advance more complex forms of life, Young noted.

“It’s becoming clear that viruses and life have evolved together,” he said. “There would not be either without each other.”

Young has been working on aspects of research leading to this paper’s publication for 10 years. The research team, which included Eric Boyd of the MSU Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Martin Lawrence of the MSU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, made regular trips to the Crater Hills Thermal Basin over a period of seven years to discover ATSV.

Young said unlike many experiments, the team’s research involved more time in the field than the lab.

“Our ability to do experiments directly in the hot springs was essential,” he said.

Young is a founding member of MSU’s multidisciplinary Thermal Biology Institute, which studies microscopic organisms that have adapted to environments of extreme heat, acidity and toxicity in Yellowstone National Park’s hot springs.

The TBI was established in 1999 and currently consists of approximately 20 MSU faculty conducting research alongside roughly 40 undergraduate students and an equal number of graduate students.

Research for this paper was made possible by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation and Dimensions in Biodiversity, a project of the NSF.

Young’s publication record includes more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on virology. His findings have been featured by National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Wired magazine and the BBC. He has received the Charles and Nora L. Wiley Faculty Award and the Technology and Science Award from MSU. 

Contact: Mark Young, MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, (406) 994-4966 or

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