The Known Unknowns

Lambda As a new paper confirms the presence of thousands of “unknown” viruses in raw sewage, it brings to mind something we already knew – that although there are a lot of “unknown” viruses out there, most of them are tailed bacteriophages, blown apart, reshuffled and reassembled:

Raw Sewage Harbors Diverse Viral Populations. mBio 2 (5) e00180-11 4 October 2011 doi: 10.1128/​mBio.00180-11
At this time, about 3,000 different viruses are recognized, but metagenomic studies suggest that these viruses are a small fraction of the viruses that exist in nature. We have explored viral diversity by deep sequencing nucleic acids obtained from virion populations enriched from raw sewage. We identified 234 known viruses, including 17 that infect humans. Plant, insect, and algal viruses as well as bacteriophages were also present. These viruses represented 26 taxonomic families and included viruses with single-stranded DNA (ssDNA), double-stranded DNA (dsDNA), positive-sense ssRNA [ssRNA(+)], and dsRNA genomes. Novel viruses that could be placed in specific taxa represented 51 different families, making untreated wastewater the most diverse viral metagenome (genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples) examined thus far. However, the vast majority of sequence reads bore little or no sequence relation to known viruses and thus could not be placed into specific taxa. These results show that the vast majority of the viruses on Earth have not yet been characterized. Untreated wastewater provides a rich matrix for identifying novel viruses and for studying virus diversity.

Analysis of the virus population present in equine faeces indicates the presence of hundreds of uncharacterized virus genomes. (2005) Virus Genes. 30(2): 151-156
Virus DNA was isolated from horse faeces and cloned in a sequence-independent fashion. 268 clones were sequenced and 178140 nucleotides of sequence obtained. Statistical analysis suggests the library contains 17560 distinct clones derived from up to 233 different virus genomes. TBLASTX analysis showed that 32% of the clones had significant identity to GenBank entries. Of these 63% were viral; 20% bacterial; 7% archaeal; 6% eukarya; and 5% were related to mobile genetic elements. Fifty-two percent of the virus identities were with Siphoviridae; 26% unclassified phages; 17% Myoviridae; 4% Podoviridae; and one clone (2%) was a vertebrate Orthopoxvirus. Genes coding for predicted virus structural proteins, proteases, glycosidases and nucleic acid-binding proteins were common.


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