Possible disease triggers: Hundreds of new viruses discovered in insects

Possible disease triggers: Hundreds of new viruses discovered in insects

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Research team has discovered hundreds of new viruses in insects

A research team from Germany has discovered hundreds of new viruses from over 20 virus species in insects. Every newly found pathogen could be a previously unknown cause of illness.

New viruses that cause diseases often come from animals. Known examples include the Zika virus originating from mosquitoes, the avian flu virus and the camel-associated MERS virus. In a recent study, researchers now discovered hundreds of new viruses from over 20 virus species in insects.

Prevent possible epidemics

Scientists from the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) at Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin are specifically looking for viruses in the animal kingdom in order to quickly identify emerging viral diseases and prevent possible epidemics. According to a recent report, they have discovered hundreds of new viruses in insects. Their results were published in the "PLOS Pathogens" journal.

Not all viruses make you sick

As the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) explains on its portal "", not all viruses in our environment affect humans. And not all viruses that infect humans actually make people sick. Because often the human immune system reacts quickly and successfully fights the intruders.

Nevertheless, according to experts, there are many important diseases that are caused by viruses. The pathogens could be responsible for far more diseases than previously known.

"Every new virus that we find could be a previously unknown cause of disease, both in humans and in farm animals," says Prof. Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at the Charité Mitte campus.

The scientist is committed to the targeted identification of viruses in the DZIF. According to the announcement, his team has, among other things, set the international standard in the diagnosis of MERS disease. The researcher is currently devoting himself to the detection of rare virus diagnoses using new sequencing techniques.

"The more viruses we know and store in our database, the easier it will be for us to identify the cause of new, emerging diseases," said Drosten.

Current study includes all orders of insects

In the current study within the DZIF working group "Virus Detection and Pandemic Prevention", researchers used the largest international transcriptome database, a kind of directory of gene activity, for insects and examined the data sets for virus genomes.

While science has previously focused primarily on mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects, this study covers all insect orders. Viruses with so-called negative single-stranded ribonucleic acid (RNA) were systematically examined.

This group of RNA viruses includes very important disease-causing viruses; They trigger Ebola and measles as well as rabies and lung infections.

Rare and unusual diseases in humans

The researchers discovered at least 20 new virus species in samples from a total of 1,243 insect species, some of which are still pending final tests. "This is probably the largest single study in the discovery of new viruses so far," says Drosten.

The scientists have already fed the new insect viruses into their search databases. With their help, cases of rare and unusual diseases in humans are examined. This includes patients in whom all symptoms indicate a virus infection, but a virus cannot be detected.

“We then use high-throughput sequencing methods to find all the viruses that are found in the patient samples,” explains Drosten. "If the patient has a virus, we will find it - provided it is stored in our database or is similar to a virus listed there." With the addition of the new insect viruses, the chances of success in the search increase.

As part of the DZIF project "Virus Detection and Pandemic Prevention", the research team at Charité will continue to prepare for emerging viruses in the coming years. The detection methods can also be improved with new knowledge of virus diversity. (ad)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • German Center for Infection Research (DZIF): Hundreds of new viruses discovered in insects, (accessed: January 8, 2020), German Center for Infection Research (DZIF)
  • Simon Käfer, Sofia Paraskevopoulou, Florian Zirkel, Nicolas Wieseke, Alexander Donath, Malte Petersen, Terry C. Jones, Shanlin Liu, Xin Zhou, Martin Middendorf, Sandra Junglen, Bernhard Misof, Christian Drosten: Re-assessing the diversity of negative strand RNA viruses in insects, in PLOS Pathogens, (published: 12.12.2019), PLOS Pathogens
  • Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA): Viruses, (accessed: 08.01.2020),

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