"Viral Dark Matter": Scientists Discover Previously Unknown Virus in Humans

Don't worry, it doesn't signal an oncoming zombie apocalypse.
Chris Young
The photo credit line may appear like thisspawns/iStock

A previously unknown virus was recently discovered by a team of researchers based in Austria.

The team of scientists, from Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences (KL Krems), the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and the University of Lisbon, was looking for viruses that infect bacteria — bacteriophages — in samples of bodily fluids.

They isolated 43 bacteriophages, including one, which is thought to be a previously unknown type.


Fighting drug resistance

The scientists were specifically looking for viruses that attack the Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacterium found in the human gut.

Researchers are working on the discovery of bacteriophages in the human body as they show great promise for genetically modifying bacteria in order to combat antibiotic resistance.

"We examined 111 samples of blood, urine, and other human body fluids to see if they contained phages. And we found them in almost one in seven samples," Dr. Cátia Pacífico, a scientist at KL Krems and lead author of the study explained in a press release.

"We also found a new kind of phage from the Tunavirinae subfamily. The presence of phages in so many samples and the discovery of a new form show just how little we know about phages in the human body."

"Viral dark matter."

So little is known about bacteriophages prevalent in the human body, in fact, that experts refer to them as "viral dark matter." Research might provide great insight into the way the balance between different bacteria affects human health.

For the time being, however, the research is heavily focused on combatting drug resistance.

"Increasing antibiotic resistance is a major problem that is growing worldwide, and we still know very little about the way in which phages contribute to this," Dr. Pacífico explains.

The research carried out by the group of researchers furthers the medical understanding of this "viral dark matter." However, as the name implies, there is still a long way to go before the field of medicine truly understands how to integrate the use of bacteriophages into the healthcare system.

The discovery of an unknown virus further serves to highlight the work that needs to be done.


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