Scientists have discovered more than 1,500 new viruses in a groundbreaking study of invertebrates.
It’s probably no cause for alarm: the study, published in Nature, suggests most of the viruses have been around for billions of years.
But while experts don’t think the new cohort poses a significant risk to humans, they’re still erring on the side of caution.
Prof Elodie Ghedin from New York University, who wasn’t directly involved with the study, told the BBC:
“If we have learned anything from these types of true discovery projects is that when we start looking into places we haven’t looked at before, we find an incredible richness that goes beyond what was suspected.
“It also makes a strong case for expanding virus surveillance to invertebrates in our quest to better understand (and predict) emerging viruses.”
Other invertebrate viruses include zika and dengue.
Most research to date has focused on viruses which cause disease in humans, animals and plants, and those grown in labs.
But the team of scientists from Australia and China wanted to take a different approach.
They focused on viruses in the most common animal group – invertebrates, spineless creatures such as insects, spiders, worms and snails.
With advanced sequencing techniques, the scientists rapidly determined the make up of the RNA which constructs the viruses’ genomes.
This let them cross-reference the sequence of RNA to work out whether it was a new or previously discovered virus.
The study also revealed that viruses are able to trade genetic material to create new species, and that many viruses which infect vertebrates originate from those in invertebrates.
Jonathan Ball, professor of virology at Nottingham University, wrote that we may have “only just scratched the surface” of the virosphere.