JAN 08, 2020 12:22 PM PST

Researchers Discover Many New Viruses That are Carried by Insects

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Zoonotic diseases are caused by infectious microorganisms like bacteria or viruses, and are passed between animals, including humans. While some may be mild, others may be life-threatening; they include Ebola, Zika, and salmonellosis, for example. Public health would benefit greatly if we knew about these diseases before they cause major outbreaks, but usually, we’re not aware of a zoonotic disease until people have fallen ill. Researchers are now trying to proactively identify new viral diseases and prevent a potential epidemic by surveying animals for new viruses. In work reported in PLOS Pathogens, researchers at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin focused an investigation like this on insects. 

Image credit: Pixabay

"Every new virus we find could be a cause of illnesses that was previously unknown, both in humans and in livestock," noted Professor Dr. Christian Drosten, Director of the Institute of Virology on Campus Charité Mitte. Drosten is a virus discovery and diagnostics expert at the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF), who previously helped create an internationally recognized diagnostic test for MERS. Now he wants to apply genetic sequencing technologies to the identification of rare, unknown viruses.

"The more viruses we identify and add to our database, the easier it is for us to recognize the cause of new and unusual illnesses," explained Drosten.

Cells carry a genome full of genes, but cells don’t express all of those genes at the same time; gene expression can depend on many factors, including an organism’s age or a cell’s function within an organism, among other things. To study active genes, researchers determine which genes are transcribed by a cell, called the transcriptome. 

In this work, the researchers utilized a massive database of insect transcriptomes, and looked for data regarding viral genomes. Viruses with genomes made from negative RNA strands include many known pathogens including rabies, measles and viruses that cause lung infections. Instead of only looking at known disease vectors like mosquitoes, the scientists took all insects in the database into account. 

The investigators assessed 1,243 species of insects, and discovered classifiable viruses in twenty new genera or more. "This is probably the largest sample of animals ever screened for new viruses," said Drosten. 

They added the viruses they found to databases, so that unusual illnesses might be diagnosed more easily in people that display symptoms of a viral infection with no apparent cause.

"In such cases, we use high-throughput sequencing methods to search for all the viruses present in the patient," added Drosten. "If the patient has a virus, we will find it, provided it is in our database or has similarities with a virus in our database." 

Right now in China, researchers are trying to determine the cause of an illness that has sent around 30 people to the hospital with pneumonia (as discussed in the video above). They may be ill with an unknown virus. Research like this will hopefully help reduce the number of cases that can’t be diagnosed.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, PLOS Pathogens

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
DEC 11, 2019
Microbiology
DEC 11, 2019
Ocean Microbes Demonstrate an Evolutionary Principle in Action
Our world is teeming with bacteria and viruses, and in the oceans, their coexistence has them locked in an evolutionary battle....
DEC 20, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
DEC 20, 2019
Outbreak of Drug-Resistant Infections Linked to Pet Store Puppies
The CDC is warning people about an outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria that's been linked to store-bought puppies....
JAN 17, 2020
Cardiology
JAN 17, 2020
Eating Walnuts Reduces Risk for Heart Disease
Walnuts may be more than just a tasty snack. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that they may also promote healthy gut bacteria, wh...
JAN 19, 2020
Microbiology
JAN 19, 2020
Photosynthetic Algae Found to Produce Methane
Cyanobacteria are microscopic blue-green algae. These naturally occurring microbes are common, but can also grow into toxic blooms....
JAN 31, 2020
Microbiology
JAN 31, 2020
Wuhan Coronavirus: WHO Declares Global Emergency
Since the first cases of a novel Coronavirus were detected in Wuhan, China a few weeks ago, the virus has spread around the globe....
FEB 04, 2020
Microbiology
FEB 04, 2020
Revealing How a Common Virus Evades the Immune System
The human metapneumovirus (HMPV) might now be well-known, but it is the second biggest cause of respiratory infections....
Loading Comments...