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Bioscientist relives discovery of 'new life-form'

Thursday 14 April 2016

A SALFORD scientist who helped solve the mystery of a ‘new life form’ has been reliving the amazing story for television.

Professor Richard Birtles is among a group of microbiologists credited with the discovery of the Mimivirus, a new type of giant virus and one which changed virology forever.

Associated with pneumonia, Mimivirus was declared the world’s largest virus and a ‘new life form’ by the 2004 Guinness Book of Records.

In fact, so significant was it that popular science writer Carl Zimmer opened his acclaimed book A Planet of Viruses with the tale of its discovery, commenting that from that moment, science began to look anew at viruses as something ‘alive’ and part of the ‘chain of life’.


This week, Richard recounted the story of the discovery of the giant virus for TV channel France 5 and was reunited him with the man – Timothy Rowbotham – who, whilst surveying cooling towers in Bradford as potential breeding grounds for pathogens, uncovered a mystery which would remain unsolved for a decade.

Tim, a brilliant investigator for the Public Health England, was developing in the early 90s a new way of culturing pathogens by growing them inside amoebae. He tested his technique using samples from the cooling tower and, to his delight, several yielded what appeared to be bacteria. He set about trying to identify them. To no avail.

The ‘Bradford Coccus’, as it became known in global microbiology, didn’t respond like any bacterium known.

At the same time – Richard Birtles, a professor in the School of Environment & Life Sciences, was among the first to begin applying apply a new molecular-based test to profile microbes, and Tim passed the mystery samples to Richard, who also failed at first to extract DNA and almost gave up: “We were banging our heads against a wall and kept changing methods. Finally we decided on a different approach, using transmission electron microscopy – that, I think was the key.”


Richard’s colleague in France, Bernard La Scola, took over the samples and in 2003 the team published the first description of the Bradford Coccus unmasked – a virus –much huger than anything previously seen.

“What we saw was amazing, it looked like a virus but it was way, way bigger - over 100 times the size of anything known.

“Once the virus was described, scientists could start to look for it, and since then an increasing number of giant viruses have been encountered in lots of different environments around the world. They’ve been found too in lungs of patients with pneumonia,”explained Richard.

“The Mimivirus totally changed our perspective of viruses – for example, most viruses possess only a handful of genes, but Mimivirus has 900."


But we almost never found it.

“If it hadn’t been for Tim’s innovative laboratory methods and me trying to help out and hanging on the samples just in case, the giant viruses may have remained undiscovered to this day.”

The documentary Giant Viruses will be shown on France 5 later this year.

- The paper (Birtles et al) ‘A Giant Virus in Amoebae’ was published in 2003 in the journal Science.