Research headed by Ohio State University’s Matthew Sullivan, a professor of microbiology, points to the potential of well over 5,000 varied RNA viruses hidden deep within the planet’s seas. These would include even five new phyla of RNA viruses, which essentially means new varied groups were discovered in tandem with even ancient viruses of the kind never before seen.
Published on Apr. 7, in the peer-reviewed journal Science, the report highlights how much we still have yet to learn about the still undiscovered 80% of our ocean. The international team of scientists utilized sophisticated ecological research methods alongside 35,000 ocean water samples, such as plankton, to unearth these incredible findings. Of all the various RNA virus species discovered, the self-titled Taraviricota was the most abundant.
“RNA viruses are clearly important in our world, but we usually only study a tiny slice of them – the few hundred that harm humans, plants, and animals,” says research head Sullivan. “We wanted to systematically study them on a very big scale and explore an environment no one had looked at deeply, and we got lucky because virtually every species was new, and many were really new.”
There are two different types of viruses to be aware of RNA and DNA. The former is probably among the most well-known, given society’s most recent and still-ongoing hurdle through the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus is the best example of an RNA virus, but the flu is too. To be clear, there are millions of different viruses set across the world, all of which interact with life in varied ways. Only about a few hundreds of these viruses are infectious to humans.
With Sullivan’s research, the team headed out with plans on building a more well-rounded perspective on the nature of RNA viruses. Little is thus far known about them, aside from their impact on life forms, such as plants, animals, and humans. Sullivan’s research will thus ensure a better understanding of the overall diversity and genealogy behind said RNA viruses.
Alongside water samples, the team likewise used state-of-the-art computers to compare RNA virus genes with that of the RdRp, an ancient virus that Sullivan coins the “barcode gene” of virus diversity. Through “machine learning” techniques and the RdRp ancient virus “barcode,” researchers were then able to pinpoint specifically how many genes were coded as virus protein, amounting to a whopping 44,000, which thus led to a total of 5,504 new marine-based viruses.
“RdRp is supposed to be one of the most ancient genes – it existed before there was a need for DNA. So we’re not just tracing the origins of viruses, but also tracing the origins of life,” explains the research’s co-author Ahmed Zayed.
None of these newly discovered RNA viruses have specific groups or phyla, yet to holistically identify their diversification, the team had to make new ones for them literally: Arctiviricota, Paraxenoviricota, Pomiviricota, Taraviricota, and Wamoviricota. The two newly proposed phyla of Taraviricota and Wamoviricota showed signs of specific trends. The former was largely located in warmer, tropical climates, and the latter was located most commonly in the Arctic Ocean.
As far as their danger levels, Sullivan relays it’s far too early to tell. While the initial research may be up and available for all to experience, there is still a ton of consideration left on the table. Each and every newly discovered virus will require extensive additional research and analysis to underscore specifics in their ecological importance and varied influences on surrounding ecosystems and marine life.
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