Like prokaryotes, mimiviruses are plagued by viruses known as virophages. This appears to have led to the evolution of a defence system much like CRISPR in bacteria. This discovery further blurs the line between viruses and prokaryotes.
MIMIVIRE is a defence system in mimivirus that confers resistance to virophage. Nature 29 February 2016 doi: 10.1038/nature17146
Since their discovery, giant viruses have revealed several unique features that challenge the conventional definition of a virus, such as their large and complex genomes, their infection by virophages and their presence of transferable short element transpovirons. Here we investigate the sensitivity of mimivirus to virophage infection in a collection of 59 viral strains and demonstrate lineage specificity in the resistance of mimivirus to Zamilon, a unique virophage that can infect lineages B and C of mimivirus but not lineage A. We hypothesized that mimiviruses harbour a defence mechanism resembling the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR)-Cas system that is widely present in bacteria and archaea. We performed de novo sequencing of 45 new mimivirus strains and searched for sequences specific to Zamilon in a total of 60 mimivirus genomes. We found that lineage A strains are resistant to Zamilon and contain the insertion of a repeated Zamilon sequence within an operon, here named the ‘mimivirus virophage resistance element’ (MIMIVIRE). Further analyses of the surrounding sequences showed that this locus is reminiscent of a defence mechanism related to the CRISPR–Cas system. Silencing the repeated sequence and the MIMIVIRE genes restores mimivirus susceptibility to Zamilon. The MIMIVIRE proteins possess the typical functions (nuclease and helicase) involved in the degradation of foreign nucleic acids. The viral defence system, MIMIVIRE, represents a nucleic-acid-based immunity against virophage infection.