Science Questions

Are any naturally-occurring beneficial viruses?

Sun, 29th Jan 2012

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Kathlyn Powell asked:

Dear Chris,


I'm wondering if there are any naturally-occurring beneficial viruses, and in particular, in the human body?


Thank you so much for the best podcasts on the web!


My very best wishes,


Kathlyn Powell


I reckon the answer is yes.  First and foremost, I think if you think about viruses that prey on bacteria because just like us, bacteria can catch a cold too. 

Bacteriophages will attack bacteria and kill them and this has actually been used as a form of antibiotic therapy and it was pioneered in Russia, but it has actually been used all over the world.  What scientists do is find these viruses that discreetly and specifically prey on certain strains of bacteria and specifically the bacteria that's causing an infection in a patient. They can grow up those particular bacteriophages, they put them into the patient, they are unable to infect a personís cells because they lack the right docking system to latch onto one of our cells.  They go into the bacteria, grow in the bacteria, each infected bacterium makes hundreds of new bacteriophages which then kill hundreds more bacteria, until it runs out of bacteria to kill, and then the whole thing just disappears.  So Iíd say those are pretty beneficial viruses.  

There are also some viruses which infect us which actually we think may, despite the fact weíre getting infected by them have a beneficial effect on our health.  There was a paper published in Nature in 2007 and itís by a guy called Skip Virgin in the States and they demonstrated that if they got mice and infect them with the rodent equivalent of glandular fever, which is a Herpes virus, or Cytomegalovirus, another Herpes virus, and then after the animals had cleared the infection, they challenge them with listeria or with bubonic plague, the mice were all fine.  They all survived.  If they challenged mice that havenít had those herpes infections first then they all died.  And their theory is that because these viruses get into the body and they then establish a life-long infection what's called a Ďlatent infectioní they in some way reprogramme the immune system and itís almost like the immune system is using the virus because itís got a very big genetic code in the virus, almost like a USB pen drive for priming the immune system in a way that itís forgotten how to do itself.  So, I would argue that's probably one kind of beneficial virus too, but a very nice question.  


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Yes, there are bacteria (strains of E. coli) that live in our intestinal flora and metabolize Vitamin K2 for us. Nizzle, Thu, 10th Nov 2011

E coli and its like are not viruses.
However there are viruses which kill bacteria and they can be beneficial. Bored chemist, Thu, 10th Nov 2011

Cowpox may be considered a beneficial virus...

Well, it was a few years ago at least. CliffordK, Thu, 10th Nov 2011

Well anything that is parasitic, explodes healthy cells in order to release copies of itself into your system, or potentially messes with your DNA, is probably not going to be benefitial. Still, you'd think by chance alone there might one virus that contributed something useful. A few years back there was a big story in a lot of newspapers about influenza infection causing remissions in some cancers, but I've never seen anything about it since, and wonder if it was disproven. cheryl j, Fri, 11th Nov 2011

Woops, sorry about the E.coli mishap. I must've had a temporarily reading disorder :)

There are bactericidal viruses (example: T4 bacteriophages) and few cases have been documented where a person was accidentally cured from a bacterial infection by getting a viral infection at the same time, but they were more exceptions and never scientifically reproducible.

If the bacterial infection would be a greater health risk than the viral infection, than that virus would be considered beneficial.

More and more, viruses are engineered to fight bacterial infections or even cancer.. Example Nizzle, Tue, 15th Nov 2011

I'm sure that if we removed all viruses the balance of nature would get messed up somehow and therefore I think viruses are beneficial. Nick, Fri, 4th Jan 2013

Well there has been a virus called HS101 which has been approved in china for the treatment of head and neck cancers Vinaykumar Hallur, Tue, 12th Nov 2013

I had the same question and this article might shed some light onto the topic... :-) Jan, Mon, 3rd Nov 2014

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