Giant algae virus may hold cure to ageing and cancer, researchers discover

London: A virus that infects small floating plants called marine algae has been found to contain compounds that could be used in anti-ageing and cancer, a British research team has discovered.

In a joint project by the UK’s Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Sanger Institute in Cambridge scientists unravelled the genetic code of the largest algal virus ever analysed.

The discovery unveiled in the journal Science, describes how they unearthed a cluster of genes responsible for making ceramide, a key component of anti-wrinkle and anti-ageing creams. The genes have never been found in a virus before; they are more commonly seen in animal and plant cells.

Ceramide can control a “death mechanism” that prolongs the life of a cell and then kills it at will. It is the same mechanism that causes a tadpole’s tail to disappear as it develops into a frog.

Dr Willie Wilson explained: “For an invading virus, the ability to control when your host will die and ensure your own survival is quite incredible. Essentially the virus hijacks the cell and slows down the ageing process by keeping it healthy for as long as possible. It uses the cell as a kind of factory to replicate itself and eventually takes over completely, killing off the cell.”

The discovery of viral ceramide will be of great interest to scientists and industries looking for new sources of novel compounds for use in medicines and cosmetics.

Dr Wilson added: “This virus really is a giant. Most viruses only have a few genes – HIV, for example, has only nine – while this algal virus has 472 genes. We’ve only just scratched the surface – much more work is needed to understand what function most of the genes actually perform.”

The virus infects the chalk-covered marine algae species that form “blooms” on the surface of the sea and soaks up billions of tons of carbon dioxide. Incredibly, during infection, the virus is also thought to produce gas (dimethyl sulphide) that helps clouds to form.