As teams of scientists scramble to find a potential vaccine for the current coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China, many other researchers across the world continue to search for a better understanding of ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses.

While it was the first biological entity to have its full genome sequenced in 1976, bacterial RNA viruses have been largely overlooked as many thousands of additional viruses and bacteria have since had their genomes sequenced.

Now, researchers Julie Callanan and Stephen Stockdale from the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) APC Microbiome Ireland research centre at University College Cork (UCC) are among a team that has uncovered a wealth of new information about bacterial RNA viruses.

In a paper published to Science Advances, the researchers analysed data from environmental samples sourced from the US, Austria, Japan and Singapore. They identified 15,611 new fragments of RNA viruses, including more than 1,000 full-length genomes.

‘A rare and exciting event’
This revealed that there are two likely, distinct lineages of single-stranded RNA (ssRNA) phages that share a highly conserved genome architecture. The availability of so many additional ssRNA phage genomes has allowed them to propose a flexible taxonomic structure that includes two families, eight subfamilies, 247 genera and 331 species.

To put this into comparison, the current scheme is only comprised of two genera.
“It is a rare and exciting event when our knowledge of an entire biological entity expands more than 60-fold in a single study,” said UCC’s Prof Colin Hill, leader of the research team.

“Understanding the biology of these bacterial predators will inform our ability to detect and control viruses of bacteria, and perhaps eventually even those infecting humans”.

APC Microbiome Ireland was last year named as one of six SFI centres to share a fund of €460m over the next few years. This fund is provided by the State and a number of industry partners.
Colm Gorey

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