Scientists discover unknown virus in ‘throwaway’ DNA

A chance discovery has opened up a new method of finding unknown viruses.

Dr Aris Katzourakis, an Associate Professor, and Dr Amr Aswad, Research Associate at Oxford’s Department of Zoology, initially discovered the new use for the database, by chance. While looking for an ancient herpes virus in primates, they found evidence of two new undocumented viruses.

Spurred by their accidental discovery, they set out to see if they could intentionally achieve the same result. In a separate project to find new fish-infecting herpes viruses, they used the technique to examine more than 50 fish genomes for recognisable viral DNA. Sure enough, in addition to the herpes viruses they were expecting to find, the researchers identified a distant lineage of unusual viruses – that may even be a new viral family. The traits were found scattered in fragments of 15 different species of fish, including the Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout.

"The viral data collected, that may otherwise be discarded as a nuisance, is a unique resource for looking for both pathogenic and benign viruses that would otherwise have remained undiscovered."

Study author Dr Aris Katzourakis, from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology