We’ve just discovered a new virus and it’s been living in our oceans for years
In what can only be described as a “the truth is out there moment”, scientists have discovered a new type of virus and it appears to have been living in our oceans – and our stomachs – for millennia.
A team of researchers at MIT, along with others from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, discovered the new viral strain after analysing three months’ worth of ocean water samples collected off the Massachusetts coast. It’s not really clear why they were taking these samples in the first place, but if they hadn’t we’d have gone even longer without knowing about this previously undiscovered family.
In their paper, the team named their discovery Autolykiviridae after the Greek mythological character Autolykos – a trickster and thief who proved difficult to catch.
It was particularly hard to find the new strain because the ocean is so crammed with bacteria it’s difficult to discern one from the other. In a single millilitre of water there’s around 10 million different viruses hanging out. Because of this, the new virus family remained undetected by standard lab tests, yet it’s possible to use more unorthodox methods as the research team managed to incubate the viruses they extracted from their Massachusetts water samples.
You’re probably wondering why this new viral discovery is so important and, in all honesty, it’s not really going to change much about your day-to-day life at all. However, for the biologists of the world, Autolykiviridae is a large part of the missing link in virus evolution.
Autolykiviridae also seems to be a lot hungrier than many other viral strains, feeding on more bacteria than most other viruses out there. This means it likely plays an instrumental role in regulating bacterial life in our oceans.
“They caused about 40 percent of the bacterial killing observed, despite comprising just 10 percent of the viruses that we isolated,” explains microbiologist Libusha Kelly.
Autolykiviridae may also be key to regulating bacteria in the human body too as the team hunted down other research that may have already discovered Autolykiviridae-like strains elsewhere. Unfortunately, it’s such a recent discovery in the field of microbiology that we still just don’t know enough about how important this virus is to nature.
“We’ve found related viral sequences in the [human] gut microbiome,” Kelly says, “but we don’t yet know how they influence microbial communities in the gut or how important they are for health.”