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Newly Discovered Virus Hides in the Gut Bacteria of Half the World's Population

First Posted: Jul 25, 2014 11:47 AM EDT

Every few months, media outlets warn about the dangers of new medical issues; oftentimes, this may be some sort of ongoing virus. Yet only recently did scientists discover a previously unknown virus that's been hiding in the gut bacteria of millions throughout three different continents.

A new study published in the journal Nature Communications found that this virus, named crAssphage, can infect one of the most common types of gut bacteria: Bacteroidetes.

"We've basically found it in every population we've looked at," said lead study author Robert Edwards, a bioinformatics professor at the University of San Diego, Calif. "As far as we can tell, it's as old as humans are."

The phylum of bacteria from the virus is thought to be connected with other serious health issues, including diabetes, obesity and certain gut-related problems.

"We suspect this virus is very important in regulating the number of these bacteria [the Bacteroides] in the intestine," Edwards added, via NPR.

For their research, the study authors collected DNA fecal samples from 12 different individuals. They discovered a similar cluster of viral DNA in many of the specimens. In fact, about 97,000 base pairs long were in common.

When the virus was screened across the National Institute of Health's Human Microbiome Project (HMP) and AGronne National Laboratory's MG-RAST database, researchers found ample signs of the involved bacteria.

"It's very unusual to find a virus that so many people have in common," Edwards concluded. "The fact that it's flown under the radar for so long is very strange." 

In fact, fecal samples across the United States, Europe, Korea and Japan carried signs of the gut bacteria. However, researchers said they believe that the virus can most likely be found worldwide.

Researchers said they believe that in the future, the virus could be used to prevent or even mitigate other diseases affected by the gut, such as certain gastroenterological maladies. However, for now, it's too early to determine. 

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