A new form of virus is currently causing scientists to scratch their heads after it emerged the organism had almost no recognisable genes.
While searching for new viruses in an artificial lake in Brazil, an international team of researchers made an unexpected discovery.
Among the giant viruses they found infecting the lake’s amoeba population, they also spotted a much smaller specimen. When they analyzed the genome of the virus, they discovered that more than 90% of its genes had never been recorded by scientists.
The team named it “Yaravirus”, after Yara, also known as “Iara”, which means “mother of all waters” and representing a beautiful mermaid figure from Brazilian mythology who would attract sailors underwater to live with her forever.
The new discovery, the Yaravirus, does not appear to be a giant virus, made up of small 80 nm particles. But what is remarkable is how unique its genome is.
“Most of the known viruses of amoeba have been seen to share many features that eventually prompted authors to classify them into common evolutionary groups,” the authors write.
“Contrary to what is observed in other isolated viruses of amoeba, Yaravirus is not represented by a large/giant particle and a complex genome, but at the same time carries an important number of previously undescribed genes.”
“Using standard protocols, our very first genetic analysis was unable to find any recognisable sequences of capsid or other classical viral genes in Yaravirus,” the researchers explain.
“Following the current metagenomic protocols for viral detection, Yaravirus would not even be recognised as a viral agent.”
Writing oin the open access bioRxiv biological sciences website, the team that examined the virus said, “Here we report the discovery of Yaravirus, a new line of amoebal virus with a confusing origin and phylogeny.
The discovery of an almost entirely unique virus might seem particularly worrying at the moment given that another new virus – the new 2019 coronavirus – has killed over 1,100 people since it started spreading across the planet in December.
But scientists regularly discover new viruses. In fact, between 2016 and 2019, the number of distinct types of viruses known to scientists in the world’s oceans increased from 15,222 to 19,55728.
The Yaravirus is not one of them – it infects amoebas – but even if it could infect humans, it would not necessarily make the new virus a threat to our species, because some viruses actually make us healthier.
Ultimately, the importance of the discovery of Yaravirus lies mainly in the fact that it extends the wealth of human knowledge to the tiny infectious agents that play a major role in the health of the entire ecosystem of the Earth – for better and for worse.