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Welcome to the Virosphere

Sean McSorley

In January, Chinese virologists isolated the virus that causes Covid-19. Earlier this month , a team of virologists gave this new virus a new name: SARS-CoV-2.

To do so, they had to move the virus to the head of a very, very long line.

In recent years, scientists have discovered that the world of virus diversity — what they sometimes call the virosphere — is unimaginably vast. They have uncovered hundreds of thousands of new species that have yet to be named. And they suspect that there are millions, perhaps even trillions, of species waiting to be found.

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“Suffice to say that we have only sampled a minuscule fraction of the virosphere,” said Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney in Australia.

With the discovery of viruses in the late 1800s, scientists soon recognized that different species caused different diseases — rabies and influenza, for example. Later, virologists learned how to recognize new kinds of viruses by growing them in labs, where subtler biological features emerged.

After decades of this painstaking work, virologists have officially named 6,828 species of viruses. That’s a paltry count when you consider that entomologists have named 380,000 species of beetles alone.But in recent years, virologists have changed the way they hunt. Now they look for bits of genetic material in samples — water, mud, blood — and use sophisticated computer programs to recognize viral genes.Matthew Sullivan, a virologist at Ohio State University, has used this method to search for viruses that infect life in the ocean. He and his colleagues analyzed genetic material in seawater collected on a scientific voyage around the world. Some genes belonged to species […]

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