Killer archaea: Virus-mediated antagonism to CRISPR-immune populations results in emergent virus-host mutualism

Samantha J. Dewerff, Maria A. Bautista, Matthew Pauly, Changyi Zhang, Rachel J. Whitaker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Theory, simulation, and experimental evolution demonstrate that diversified CRISPR-Cas immunity to lytic viruses can lead to stochastic virus extinction due to a limited number of susceptible hosts available to each potential new proto-spacer escape mutation. Under such conditions, theory predicts that to evade extinction, viruses evolve toward decreased virulence and promote vertical transmission and persistence in infected hosts. To better understand the evolution of host-virus interactions in microbial populations with active CRISPR-Cas immunity, we studied the interaction between CRISPR-immune Sulfolobus islandicus cells and immune-deficient strains that are infected by the chronic virus SSV9. We demonstrate that Sulfolobus islandicus cells infected with SSV9, and with other related SSVs, kill uninfected, immune strains through an antagonistic mechanism that is a protein and is independent of infectious virus. Cells that are infected with SSV9 are pro-tected from killing and persist in the population. We hypothesize that this infection acts as a form of mutualism between the host and the virus by removing competi-tors in the population and ensuring continued vertical transmission of the virus within populations with diversified CRISPR-Cas immunity. IMPORTANCE Multiple studies, especially those focusing on the role of lytic viruses in key model systems, have shown the importance of viruses in shaping microbial populations. However, it has become increasingly clear that viruses with a long host-virus interaction, such as those with a chronic lifestyle, can be important drivers of evolution and have large impacts on host ecology. In this work, we describe one such interaction with the acidic crenarchaeon Sulfolobus islandicus and its chronic virus Sulfolobus spindle-shaped virus 9. Our work expands the view in which this symbiosis between host and virus evolved, describing a killing phenotype which we hypothesize has evolved in part due to the high prevalence and diversity of CRISPR-Cas immunity seen in natural populations. We explore the implications of this phenotype in population dynamics and host ecology, as well as the implications of mu-tualism between this virus-host pair.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere00404-20
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • Archaea
  • CRISPR-Cas
  • Chronic viruses
  • Coevolution
  • Mutualism
  • Symbiosis
  • Transmission mode
  • Virus-host interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Virology


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