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High diversity of unknown picorna-like viruses in the sea


Picorna-like viruses are a loosely defined group of positive-sense single-stranded RNA viruses that are major pathogens of animals, plants and insects. They include viruses that are of enormous economic and public-health concern and are responsible for animal diseases (such as poliomyelitis1), plant diseases (such as sharka2) and insect diseases (such as sacbrood3). Viruses from the six divergent families (the Picornaviridae, Caliciviridae, Comoviridae, Sequiviridae, Dicistroviridae and Potyviridae) that comprise the picorna-like virus superfamily4 have the following features in common: a genome with a protein attached to the 5′ end and no overlapping open reading frames, all the RNAs are translated into a polyprotein before processing, and a conserved RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) protein. Analyses of RdRp sequences from these viruses produce phylogenies that are congruent with established picorna-like virus family assignments5,6,7; hence, this gene is an excellent molecular marker for examining the diversity of picorna-like viruses in nature. Here we report, on the basis of analysis of RdRp sequences amplified from marine virus communities, that a diverse array of picorna-like viruses exists in the ocean. All of the sequences amplified were divergent from known picorna-like viruses, and fell within four monophyletic groups that probably belong to at least two new families. Moreover, we show that an isolate belonging to one of these groups is a lytic pathogen of Heterosigma akashiwo, a toxic-bloom-forming alga responsible for severe economic losses to the finfish aquaculture industry, suggesting that picorna-like viruses are important pathogens of marine phytoplankton.

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Figure 1: Maximum-likelihood tree of RdRp sequences from environmental amplicons and representative viruses from picorna-like virus families.


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We thank the crew and participants of the SOG cruises from 1996 to 1998. We also thank C. Frederickson for assistance with DGGE and M. Berbee and P. Keeling for advice on phylogenetic analyses. This work was supported by a National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant to C.A.S.

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Correspondence to Curtis A. Suttle.

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Culley, A., Lang, A. & Suttle, C. High diversity of unknown picorna-like viruses in the sea. Nature 424, 1054–1057 (2003).

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