Intraspecific antagonism through viral toxin encoded by chronic Sulfolobus spindle-shaped virus

Samantha J. Dewerff, Changyi Zhang, John Schneider, Rachel J. Whitaker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Virus-host interactions evolve along a symbiosis continuum from antagonism to mutualism. Long-term associations between virus and host, such as those in chronic infection, will select for traits that drive the interaction towards mutualism, especially when susceptible hosts are rare in the population. Virus-host mutualism has been demonstrated in thermophilic archaeal populations where Sulfolobus spindle-shaped viruses (SSVs) provide a competitive advantage to their host Sulfolobus islandicus by producing a toxin that kills uninfected strains. Here, we determine the genetic basis of this killing phenotype by identifying highly transcribed genes in cells that are chronically infected with a diversity of SSVs. We demonstrate that these genes alone confer growth inhibition by being expressed in uninfected cells via a Sulfolobus expression plasmid. Challenge of chronically infected strains with vector-expressed toxins revealed a nested network of cross-toxicity among divergent SSVs, with both broad and specific toxin efficacies. This suggests that competition between viruses and/or their hosts could maintain toxin diversity. We propose that competitive interactions among chronic viruses to promote their host fitness form the basis of virus-host mutualism. This article is part of the theme issue 'The secret lives of microbial mobile genetic elements'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20200476
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1842
StatePublished - 2022


  • archaea
  • archaeal toxins
  • chronic viruses
  • virus-host mutualism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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