Over 5,000 New Viruses Found in Our Oceans

According to a study published on April 7, 2022, microbiologists from Ohio State University have identified 5,504 previously unknown species of RNA viruses in the Earth’s oceans.

The research is part of a four-year ocean research project. The discoveries could help us understand how genetic information — and life itself — came to be on our planet.

Of the millions of viruses in the world, only a few hundred infect humans, but those are the ones we’re aware of. There are two types of viruses, DNA and RNA viruses. These new ones are the RNA type.

We’re already all-too-familiar with RNA viruses such as COVID-19 and the common flu, but most are harmless. Of these RNA viruses, the researchers found so many new species that the number of phyla — a large scientific grouping — has suddenly doubled from 5 to 10.

Matthew Sullivan, a lead author of the study, said it’s too early to know if any of the viruses could pose a danger to humans.

RNA epigenetic structure of viruses

RNA epigenetic structure. Image: ART-ur


Missing link in virus evolution?

The study’s authors explain:

Two of the new phyla were particularly abundant across vast oceanic regions…We believe that [one of the phyla] might be the missing link in the evolution of RNA viruses that researchers have long sought, connecting two different branches of RNA viruses that diverged in how they replicate.

The team gleaned the viruses from 35,000 ocean water samples from various locations around the world.