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Yellowstone Super-Virus Survives in Boiling Acid and Could be Used to Cure Cancer

A strange virus discovered living in the boiling sulfuric acid cauldrons of the Yellowstone caldera could be used for life saving medical technologies, including revolutionary new means of delivering cancer drugs, according to a new paper published in PNAS, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Of course the thing to do with a super-virus that thrives in pools of boiling acid known to dissolve people alive, in the middle of a super-volcano which threatens destruction of civilization as we know it, is to figure out how to stick it in people. But, hey, science knows best, and maybe this virus really could help save lives.

Virus discovered in Yellowstone that could save lives.

“Why not?”-Science.

The paper, written by Montana State University graduate Rebecca Hochstein and others, looks at the Acidianus tailed spindle virus—or Acidianus virus for short—found in the hot-springs of Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone Acidianus virus is a “lemon shaped” virus—one of the three shapes viruses come in, alongside cylindrical and spherical shaped viruses. Science has a good understanding of how cylindrical and spherical viruses are put together, but the way in which the lemon shaped viruses are put together was a mystery up until Hochstein’s research on the Acidianus virus.

The research shows how this virus constructs its shell and can eject the DNA that it carries. The Acidianus virus makes a strange transition from a lemon shape to a cylindrical shape. The researchers think this transition is a way of squirting its DNA into cells it’s infecting, like squirting lemon juice from a lemon. It’s this ejection of DNA that has researchers interested in medical applications. Co-author of the study Martin Lawrence explained how that may work:

If we could load these virus shells with a different cargo, say a drug, and target it to a particular place in the body, such as a tumor, it could then deliver the drug to just that specific location, making the drug more effective, or reducing side effects.

Viruses have been understood as potential delivery methods of drugs and vectors for gene therapy for some time, but the Yellowstone virus’ extreme environmental resiliency greatly extends the potential environments in which such a method could be used. This virus did come from a boiling hot pool of sulfuric acid after all. Mark Young, MSU professor and co-author of the study, said that the Yellowstone Acidianus virus is of interest to biotech companies.

This is because it extends the conditions under which virus-based nano-cages can operate. Already, these types of nano-cages have been shown to be stable in the animal GI track, opening the possibility for their development as smart drug delivery systems.

Hot spring in Yellowstone National Park

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park

There are risks to using viruses carriers in treatments like gene therapy, however. According to the Mayo Clinic, potential risks include the virus causing cancer itself, or even returning to its original active form and causing a viral infection. Considering the Yellowstone virus calls sulfuric acid home, and isn’t bothered by temperatures usually reserved to ruin steak dinners, thinking this virus might roll over and play nice for us might be a little foolhardy.

It will be a long time before this nightmare creature finds its way into everyday medical use, but it’s nice to know that Yellowstone is still coming up with ways to freak us out.

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Sequoyah is a writer, music producer, and poor man's renaissance man based in Providence, Rhode Island. He spends his time researching weird history and thinking about the place where cosmic horror overlaps with disco. You can follow him on Twitter: @shkennedy33.