Scientists Discover New Virus Infecting Half of the World's Population

First Posted: Jul 25, 2014 07:37 AM EDT

It turns out that there may be a virus living inside your gut that has gone undetected by scientists for decades. Researchers have found more than half of the world's population hosts a newly described virus named crAssphage, which infects one of the most common types of gut bacteria, called Bacteroidetes.

The finding came almost by accident. Scientists were using results from previous studies on gut-inhabiting viruses to screen for new viruses. In the DNA samples from 12 different individuals, the researchers noticed a particular cluster of viral DNA that the samples all had in common. They then compared this finding against a list of known viruses and found that it didn't match any.

In order to prove that the viral DNA they discovered in their computer data actually exists in nature, the researchers used a technique known as DNA amplification to locate the virus in the original samples used by build the database at NIH. In the end, they found that the virus was not only novel, but that many people had it in common.

"We've basically found it in every population we've looked at," said Robert Edwards, one of the researchers, in a news release. "As far as we can tell, it's as old as humans are."

Some of the proteins found in the DNA of the new virus, named crAssphage, are similar to those found in other well-described viruses. This allowed the scientists to learn that the new virus is one known as a bacteriophage, which infects and replicates inside bacteria.

The new findings also have implications for future research. Once the virus is isolated, the scientists may be able to use it for obesity research. In addition, it could be used to prevent or mitigate other diseases affected by the gut such as diabetes and gastroenterological maladies.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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