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100,000 New Viruses Identified in Breakthrough Israeli-Led Study

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Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (blue) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (red), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH/Handout via REUTERS

Some 100,000 new viruses were identified in an Israeli-led study, marking a nine-fold increase in the amount of known ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses, Tel Aviv University announced Monday.

The researchers used new technology to mine data from thousands of global samples — drawn from soil, oceans, lakes, sewage, geysers, and other ecosystems — to make the discovery, which they believe may help boost effort to develop anti-microbial drugs and protect agriculture from harmful fungi and parasites.

They also developed a tool to distinguish the RNA virus from the genetic makeup of its host, and then reconstructed how the virus evolved to adapt to different hosts, according to doctoral student Uri Neri, who led the study with the oversight of TAU Prof. Uri Gophna.

The results of the study — which was carried out in collaboration with the US National Institutes of Health and the US Energy Department Joint Genome Institute, along with the Pasteur Institute in France — were published in the peer-reviewed journal Cell in September.

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While some viruses can cause diseases in humans, like coronavirus, “the vast majority of viruses do not harm us and infect bacterial cells — some of them even live inside our bodies without us even being aware of it,” a TAU statement publicizing the study noted.

The researchers identified specific organisms that the new viruses are likely to attack, with the findings expected to aid in the development of effective repellents for bacteria, fungi, and pests that threaten agriculture.

Gophna, who helped guide the study, noted that “compared to DNA viruses, the diversity and roles of RNA viruses in microbial ecosystems are not well understood.”

“In our study, we found that RNA viruses are not unusual in the evolutionary landscape and, in fact, that in some aspects they are not that different from DNA viruses,” he explained. “This opens the door for future research, and for a better understanding of how viruses can be harnessed for use in medicine and agriculture.”

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