Covid-19, Ebola and influenza. They all have in common that they are caused by a virus of the RNA type, ie a virus where the genome consists of RNA and not DNA.
It has been assumed that there are a number of such viruses that we do not know, but how many researchers have been unsure of. According to a new study, an international research team has detected 130,000 unknown RNA viruses.
– It is a surprising discovery. That they have discovered so many only shows that we have known a fraction of all RNA viruses that exist, says Tomas Bergström, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Gothenburg.
He compares it to the fact that we only know a small square centimeter of an enormous surface.
Worked as a police officer
In the study, the researchers analyzed data from 5.7 million biological samples, which have been taken and stored over the past 15 years.
A network of supercomputers has searched for a gene sequence found in all RNA viruses that can infect mammals.
The gene sequence contains the virus’ recipe for being able to produce the enzyme that allows the virus to multiply.
The researchers’ work is compared to what the police do when they have a genetic material for which they examine huge databases.
– Here the crime scene is biological samples, and the perpetrator is a gene that only the virus has. I think this is very exciting, says Bergström.
If it is confirmed that there are in fact 130,000 new RNA viruses, it means that we now know nine times as many RNA viruses as before.
We know of around 600 RNA viruses that can infect humans.
However, no specific viruses have been found, but traces of them. Bergström says there is a theoretical possibility that the findings may originate from other biological material, but that it is low.
– I do not think these enzymes can be found freely in nature, but that they must be in a virus to exist, he says.
The new knowledge is important to be able to prepare for new pandemics, the researchers write in the article published in the journal Nature.
The next time a virus is transmitted from animals to humans and begins to spread, such knowledge enables us to more quickly understand what kind of virus it is and develop vaccines against it.
– If the new virus matches with some of the RNA viruses that have been discovered now, the whole journey will be much easier. Then we can start immediately and make tests and antiviral drugs, says Bergström.
– I have no idea what’s coming
When the coronavirus that paralyzed the world first infected a human, that process also went fast as we knew of other sars-cov viruses before.
However, Bergström recalls how HIV spread around the world in the 1980s as a new and completely unknown virus. It then took several years to examine the virus before tests and drugs could be found.
– The next pandemic could be caused by a whole new virus. We have no idea what may come. Then it is good to know what the landscape looks like, says the researcher.