Medical researchers have focused on a common bacteria found in the body as a possible culprit for obesity and diabetes. Now San Diego State University has come up with a new discovery that could add to the knowledge in the field.

SDSU researchers found a virus, crAssphage, which infects that gut bacteria, called bacteroidetes. The San Diego State team’s work was published in Nature Communications Thursday.

Their finding happened by accident, said Robert A. Edwards, a bioinformatics professor, while researchers were studying 12 DNA fecal samples. They came upon a cluster of viral DNA, common to the samples. They then compared the discovery to a comprehensive listing of known viruses, without a match.

Researchers, using extensive databases, helped isolate a virus that could aid in obesity, diabetes research. Photo credit: SDSU Video via YouTube

Using databases from the National Institute of Health and Argonne National Laboratory, the team was able to search for the virus they discovered and found it “in abundance” in human fecal samples. It can be found in people from every continent, researchers said – as much as half the world’s population.

To further solidify their case, a SDSU virologist, John Mokili aided the team, seeking “biological proof that the virus they found with the computer actually exists in the samples,”  that are part of the NIH database.

The due diligence paid off. SDSU’s discovery was legit – and surprising, Edwards said.

“It’s not unusual to go looking for a novel virus and find one,” the professor said in a news release. “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.”

There are many things still to learn. The team doesn’t know how the virus is shared, but deduced that since it was not spotted in infants’ fecal samples, it probably is not transmitted from mothers.

The find, Edwards said, “as far as we can tell, it’s as old as humans are.” The team named the virus, crAssphage, not based on anything involving the body, but after the cross-assembly software program used to discover it.

Bacteriodetes bacteria, researchers said, live near the terminus of the intestinal tract, and they are believed to play a significant role in obesity.

Whether crAssphage is a part of that process will be a target of further study for the SDSU team, Edwards said.

Other SDSU researchers involved in the discovery are Katelyn McNair, Savannah Sanchez, Genivaldo G.Z. Silva, Lance Boling, Jeremy J. Barr, Victor Seguritan, Ben Felts and Elizabeth A. Dinsdale. San Diego State collaborated with Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

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