Main content area

Meta-transcriptomics and the evolutionary biology of RNA viruses

Shi, Mang, Zhang, Yong-Zhen, Holmes, Edward C.
Virus research 2018 v.243 pp. 83-90
RNA viruses, genome, invertebrate viruses, metagenomics, phylogeny, transcriptome, viruses
Metagenomics is transforming the study of virus evolution, allowing the full assemblage of virus genomes within a host sample to be determined rapidly and cheaply. The genomic analysis of complete transcriptomes, so-called meta-transcriptomics, is providing a particularly rich source of data on the global diversity of RNA viruses and their evolutionary history. Herein we review some of the insights that meta-transcriptomics has provided on the fundamental patterns and processes of virus evolution, with a focus on the recent discovery of a multitude of novel invertebrate viruses. In particular, meta-transcriptomics shows that the RNA virus world is more fluid than previously realized, with relatively frequent changes in genome length and structure. As well as having a transformative impact on studies of virus evolution, meta-transcriptomics presents major new challenges for virus classification, with the greater sampling of host taxa now filling many of the gaps on virus phylogenies that were previously used to define taxonomic groups. Given that most viruses in the future will likely be characterized using metagenomics approaches, and that we have evidently only sampled a tiny fraction of the total virosphere, we suggest that proposals for virus classification pay careful attention to the wonders unearthed in this new age of virus discovery.