Local scientists make groundbreaking virus discovery

Local scientists have transformed the traditional understanding of the origin and evolution of RNA viruses in a paper published by world-leading journal Nature on Thursday.
Ti Gong / Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center

Zhang Yongzhen, from Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, gives a speech on his team's latest findings about the origin and evolution of RNA virus.

After years of research, local scientists have transformed the traditional understanding of the origin and evolution of RNA viruses.

These viruses, which cause many diseases in animals, humans and plants, may not have appeared as recently as was thought, the scientists discovered, after finding the same viruses in diverse vertebrates like fish and reptiles.

This means these viruses are as old as their vertebrate hosts, providing new thoughts for their study, important in the precise diagnosis and treatment of said viruses.

The findings can improve the ability of micro-organism detection and identification and better the ability of China and the world to more precisely treat new and unknown infectious disease, scientists from Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, which led the research, said.

The paper was published by world-leading journal Nature on Thursday.

RNA virus is a virus that contains RNA, or ribonucleic acid, as its genetic material. Many severe human diseases like AIDS, Ebola, SARS and influenza are caused by RNA viruses.

The findings have garnered great attention around the world because they could help scientists to identify RNA viruses that might infect people in the future, according to Mya Breitbart, an environmental virologist at the University of South Florida in St Petersburg.

Edward Holmes from the University of Sydney, and a co-author of the paper, said the research provides a complete new view of virus evolution. “(This) is a very transformative and landmark paper,” he said in a video.

With a new, self-developed RNA virus screening and identification system, the team collected samples from 186 species of vertebrates and found 214 new RNA viruses from the samples. 

These viruses covered all known RNA viruses in mammals and birds, including viruses causing severe human diseases like influenza and Ebola virus. This means that RNA viruses have a similar evolution process as their hosts, as well as similar diversity.

“This completely changed our understanding of the virosphere and offered strong evidence for the origin of life,” said Zhang Yongzhen, head scientist of the research. “Many human pathogens we thought in the past were only found in mammals and birds were found in different types of fish.”

This means that the RNA viruses still infecting humans are very old and can be chased back to the very first generation of vertebrate, Zhang explains.

"Viruses, along with their hosts, came from the sea to the land and spread widely. There are many more unknown viruses that exist everywhere in the world."

It's important that we step up the search for as yet unknown viruses and diseases, Zhang argues, so that we can better avoid "disasters" like SARS, AIDS, and Ebola.

Special Reports