UK science teams from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Sanger Institute in Cambridge unraveled the genetic code of a gigantic virus that infects chalk-covered marine algae, which in turn led to the discovery of the ceramide compound.
The findings, which were reported in the 12 August edition of the Journal Science and are being promoted by the Natural Environmental Reasearch Council, could be used to develop a natural means of producing ceramide, a compound that is known to prolong cell life. The scientists say that this means it could also be used to treat some forms of cancer.
The research project, headed by Dr. Willie Wilson, said that it had unearthed a cluster of genes responsible for the production of ceramide - something that was not known to exist in a virus. Most commonly this gene is found in animal and plant cells.
Ceramide can control a 'death mechanism' that prolongs the life of a cell and then kills it at will. The same mechanism is seen when a tadpole's tail disappears as it develops into a frog. Likewise this mechanism can dictate the life of a cell, prolonging or shortening its existence depending on the levels sustained.
Many leading cosmetics companies, including Elizabeth Arden and L'Oreal, use ceramide as part of their anti-aging and anti-wrinkle formulas. The compound is said to contribute to an increase in skin hydration and the maintenance of moisture levels, which in turn can lead to a reduction in fine lines.
Dr Wilson explained, "For an invading virus, the ability to control when your host will die and ensure your own survival is quite incredible. Essentially the virus hijacks the cell and slows down the aging process by keeping it healthy for as long as possible. It uses the cell as a kind of factory to replicate itself and eventually takes over completely, killing off the cell."
As ceramide is a complex compound to produce, the discovery of the viral ceramide will be of interest to cosmetics formulators looking for new sources of this novel compounds for use in cosmetic products.
Dr Wilson added, " This virus really is a giant. Most viruses only have a few genes - HIV, for example, has only nine - while this algal virus has 472 genes. We've only just scratched the surface. Much more work is needed to understand what function most of the genes actually perform."
Dr Matthew Holden, leader of the Sanger Institute's analysis team, said: "The genome is remarkably different to other viruses and proved to be a real challenge to decode. The genetic map provides a tantalizing glimpse of the potential benefits locked within, but many of the gene secrets of this mysterious leviathan still remain to be unravelled."
The virus appears to infect only the chalk-covered marine algae species (Emiliania huxleyi) that form 'blooms' on the surface of the sea, soaking up billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Incredibly, during infection the virus is also thought to control climate through production of a gas (dimethyl sulphide) that helps clouds to form.