Newly found widespread gut virus may be connected to obesity and diabetes

Mon, 28 Jul 2014
A previously unknown virus that is present in more than half of the human population has been discovered by scientists in America, who claim it could play a vital role in the development of obesity and diabetes.

The newly described virus dubbed crAssphage, after the software that identified it, was uncovered by biologists at San Diego State University when analysing results from previous studies to screen for new viruses.

Their research found that crAssphage infects one of the most common types of gut bacteria thought to be associated with obesity, diabetes and other gut-related diseases. And because it was shown to be so widespread - residing in the guts of more than half of the world's population - the scientists suggest it is likely to be as old as the human race.

"We've basically found it in every population we've looked at. As far as we can tell, it's as old as humans are," explained bioinformatics professor and co-author of the study, Robert A. Edwards.

"It's not unusual to go looking for a novel virus and find one. But it's very unusual to find one that so many people have in common. The fact that it's flown under the radar for so long is very strange."

Viruses replicate by hijacking the cells of living organisms. In the case of crAssphage, Prof Edwards and colleagues determined that their novel virus latches on to the cells of a common class of gut bacteria called Bacteroidetes. Bacteroidetes live towards the end of the intestinal tract and are believed to play a significant role in obesity.

Whether crAssphage has a part in that process is unclear. But if it does, the researchers believe that by isolating it, the virus could be used to help prevent obesity or alleviate other diseases affected by the gut, such as diabetes.

"This could be a key to personalised phage medicine," Prof Edwards added. "In individuals, we could isolate your particular strain of the virus, manipulate it to target harmful bacteria, then give it back to you."

The research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.
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