A team of scientists led by Israel claims to have discovered about 100,000 new types of viruses previously unknown to science.
The groundbreaking research was published in September in the prestigious academic journal Cell, after scientists at Tel Aviv University and elsewhere examined environmental data from soil samples, oceans, lakes and various other ecosystems around the world.
According to Tel Aviv University, this study represents a ninefold increase in the number of RNA viruses currently known to science. Unlike DNA viruses, RNA viruses infect cells by injecting RNA into the cytoplasm of host cells and have a high mutation rate.
Some notable human diseases caused by RNA viruses include COVID-19, the common cold, influenza, SARS, MERS, hepatitis C, hepatitis E, West Nile fever, Ebola, and measles.
After identifying which organisms the viruses they discovered are most likely to attack, the scientists hope their findings will help develop new types of antimicrobial drugs and help protect agriculture from harmful fungi and parasites.
The study, which also included research from Stanford, the US National Institutes of Health, the US Department of Energy, France’s Institut Pasteur and elsewhere, relied on data collected by more than a hundred scientists from around the world.
According to lead author Uri Neri, a doctoral student in Tel Aviv, the findings were made possible because of new computational techniques that allowed researchers to efficiently gather genetic information collected from thousands of different sampling points.
The system, which was developed for the purpose of the study, also allowed the researchers to reconstruct how viruses underwent various adaptation processes during their evolutionary development.
“A key question in microbiology is how and why viruses transfer genes between themselves,” said Tel Aviv University professor Uri Gofna, who oversaw the study.
“The system we developed makes it possible to perform deep evolutionary analyzes and understand how different RNA viruses have evolved over evolutionary history,” he added.
“Compared to DNA viruses, the diversity and role of RNA viruses in microbial ecosystems is not well understood,” said Gofna. “In our study, we found that RNA viruses are not uncommon in the evolutionary landscape and, in fact, in some respects they are no different from DNA viruses.
“This opens the door to future research, and to a better understanding of how viruses can be used in medicine and agriculture.”