Naama Barak
January 5, 2023

Researchers have recently identified approximately 100,000 viruses previously unknown to science – but for once, that’s not bad news.

Rather, the discovery, which was published in the journal Cell, could aid the development of antimicrobial drugs and the protection of agriculture in the face of harmful fungi and parasites.

In their study, Prof. Uri Gophna and PhD student Uri Neri from Tel Aviv University mined genetic information collected from thousands of sampling points around the world, including soil, lakes and oceans.

They discovered 100,000 new viruses – a ninefold increase in the amount of RNA viruses known to science until now – and analyzed them using a computational tool that distinguishes between the genetic material of RNA viruses and that of the hosts.

Scientists discover 100,000 new viruses around the world
PhD student Uri Neri, left, and Prof. Uri Gophna from Tel Aviv University are responsible for a ninefold increase in the amount of RNA viruses now known to science. Photo courtesy of Tel Aviv University

“The system we developed makes it possible to perform in-depth evolutionary analyses and to understand how the various RNA viruses have developed throughout evolutionary history,” said Gophna.

“One of the key questions in microbiology is how and why viruses transfer genes between them. We identified a number of cases in which such gene exchanges enabled viruses to infect new organisms,” he explained.

“Furthermore, compared to DNA viruses, the diversity and roles of RNA viruses in microbial ecosystems are not well understood. In our study, we found that RNA viruses are not unusual in the evolutionary landscape and, in fact, that in some aspects they are not that different from DNA viruses.”  

Further research can lead to a better understanding of how viruses can be harnessed for use in medicine and agriculture, he concluded.

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