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Enter the Virosphere

As evidence of the influence of viruses escalates, appreciation of these master manipulators grows

1:57pm, September 25, 2009

If he were starring in a campy horror flick, Tim Rowbotham might have gasped and whispered, “It’s alive!” As a microbiologist with Britain’s Public Health Laboratory Service, he had isolated an unknown microorganism from an amoeba growing in a water tower in Bradford, England. Rowbotham baptized the entity “Bradford coccus.” He added his new specimen to the collection of bacteria that live within amoebas and continued the search for the cause of a pneumonia outbreak plaguing the citizens of Bradford.

But Rowbotham hadn’t discovered a bacterium. He had actually found a gigantic virus—one so large and possessing such a peculiar mixture of traits that it is challenging the very notion of what it means to be alive.

Viruses have long been regarded as nonliving entities. They don’t have the machinery to make new viruses, nor do they have a discernible metabolism (you won’t hear a virus declare “as I live and

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