There are approximately ten nonillion viruses on our planet, but that’s no reason to panic. Viruses are integral for life on Earth, and as scientists discover thousands of new ones, they’re learning more about the outsized role they play.
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The current pandemic has highlighted how important it is for us to know what viruses may be lurking out there. But while we keep one wary eye out for those potentially harmful ones, we’re also uncovering just how much viruses have actually shaped humans—and the rest of life on Earth too—in some really surprising ways.
‘Virus hunters’, as they’re known, are scientists who search the hidden corners of the world for viruses that are poised to become human pathogens. In many cases, they’re searching for Disease X.
That’s not the name of an actual illness—it’s what we call the hypothetical infection that could cause the next big global disease. The idea is to find it before it finds us. But other researchers are delving into what ELSE viruses are doing on our planet besides making people sick. And the main tool they’re using to do that…is metagenomics.
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Why the world needs viruses to function
“If all viruses suddenly disappeared, the world would be a wonderful place for about a day and a half, and then we’d all die – that’s the bottom line,” says Tony Goldberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “All the essential things they do in the world far outweigh the bad things.”
Beyond coronavirus: the virus discoveries transforming biology
There are just 9,110 named species listed by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), but that’s obviously a pitiful fraction of the total. In part, that’s because officially classifying a virus used to require scientists to culture a virus in its host or host cells — a time-consuming if not impossible process.
Scientists identify more than 140,000 virus species in the human gut
Dr Alexandre Almeida, Postdoctoral Fellow at EMBL-EBI and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: "It’s important to remember that not all viruses are harmful, but represent an integral component of the gut ecosystem.
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00:00 Not just bad viruses
00:22 Virus hunters
02:59 Viruses everywhere
03:17 The ocean’s energy web
03:37 Viruses shaped life on Earth