Thousands Of New Viruses Discovered In The Ocean, According To New Study

More than 5,000 new virus species have been discovered throughout our world’s oceans according to a new study. Researchers at The Ohio State University analyzed tens of thousands of water samples from around the world looking for new RNA viruses, or viruses that use RNA for genetic material. 

These types of viruses are typically understudied when compared to DNA viruses, however, Covid-19 is a type of RNA virus, so scientists and researchers all around the globe have been trying to gain a greater understanding of them. 

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The diversity of the newfound viruses was so great that the researchers have “proposed doubling the number of taxonomic groups needed to classify RNA viruses, from the existing five phyla to 10 phyla. Phylum is a broad classification in biology just below kingdom,” study lead author Matthew Sullivan, a professor of microbiology at The Ohio State University, said in a statement

“There’s so much new diversity here – and an entire new phylum, the Taraviricota, were found all over the oceans, which suggests they’re ecologically important,” he explained. 

“Studies of RNA viruses have usually focused on those that cause diseases. Some well-known RNA viruses include influenza, Ebola and the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But these are just a tiny slice of RNA viruses on Earth.”

“We wanted to systematically study them on a very big scale and explore an environment no one had looked at deeply,” Sullivan said in the statement.

For the study, published in the journal Science, the researchers “analyzed 35,000 water samples taken from 121 locations in all five of the world’s oceans.”

The researchers team are all members of the Tara Oceans Consortium, a worldwide project created to study the impact of climate change specifically on the ocean. 

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The researchers examined genetic sequences that were extracted from plankton; small aquatic organisms. Plankton is known to be a common host for RNA viruses. By focusing on sequences that belonged to RNA viruses, they were able to find the ancient gene known as RdRp, which is found in all RNA viruses, but absent from other types of viruses. 

The researchers were able to identify over 44,000 sequences with the ancient gene. Since the RdRp gene is billions of years old, it has been able to evolve, which makes it harder for the scientists to determine the actual evolutionary relationship between the sequences and how they changed. 

“Overall, we identified about 5,500 new RNA virus species that fell into the five existing phyla, as well as the five newly proposed phyla, which are named Taraviricota, Pomiviricota, Paraxenoviricota, Wamoviricota and Arctiviricota.”

“Virus species in the Taraviricota phylum were particularly abundant in temperate and tropical waters, while viruses in the Arctiviricota phylum are abundant in the Arctic Ocean,” the researchers wrote.

“Understanding how the RdRp gene diverged over time could lead to a better understanding of how early life evolved on Earth,” the authors said.

“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,”study co-first author Ahmed Zayed, a research scientist in microbiology at Ohio State, said in the statement.