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More than 60 distinct viruses found in feces of common park duck

Molecular virology lab seeks to expand knowledge about viruses by studying those that do not affect humans

A man kneeling down at the edge of a pond next to several ducks.

Diego Olivo, a third-year biology PhD student, just published his first paper identifying 64 different viruses that exist in the fecal sample of an American wigeon. Courtesy photo

February 29, 2024

Billions or even trillions of tiny microbes, like bacteria, fungi and viruses, live inside every single animal, making each one of us hosts to entire ecosystems.

Those invisible microbes outnumber all of Earth’s multicellular organisms by a huge amount: If combined, they would even outweigh all the plants and animals in the world. And yet, researchers have little idea about what most of those microbes are.

Researchers especially know very little about the huge suite of viruses that make up our living world; we know what less than 1% of all viruses are, mostly just the viruses that can make humans sick.  

ASU researchers in a molecular virology lab led by Arvind Varsani have been working to address the huge gap in our knowledge about the viruses we live alongside by focusing on studying the viruses that do not affect humans. 

A smiling man wearing a zipped up jacket in the snow.
Diego Olivo

“We are pushing kind of the boundaries of what we know about viruses,” said Diego Olivo, a third-year biology PhD student in the lab. “Viruses are so very prevalent throughout our ecosystems, and most of them don't have any kind of danger to us, but it's still important to understand how these impact other organisms and ecosystems.”  

Olivo recently published the lab’s newest study, which classified a whole host of viruses that exist in the fecal matter of an American wigeon, a kind of dabbling duck native to North America and a common resident of local Phoenix parks.

In just a single fecal sample, Olivo found over 64 potential distinct viruses belonging to at least two viral families.

“This guy had a lot of viruses,” Olivo said with a laugh.  

Many of those viruses likely do not infect the wigeon, Olivo said; he would have to look at what viruses exist in the wigeon’s organs to know that. 

But by looking at the fecal matter of just a single organism, he’s found that not only can he see viruses that might infect the wigeon, he can also get a look at the many other viruses the wigeon interacts with across its environment.

“We found that we were able to pull out some really important data from this (approach)," he said.

Olivo will continue sequencing viruses in wigeon samples throughout his PhD, paying special attention to a group of viruses called “circoviruses” that can suppress the ducks’ immune systems and ability to fight off disease.

He hopes that in doing that work, he’ll be able to expand our knowledge of what viruses exist in Arizona “and how they impact local ecosystems.” That may one day inform future conservation efforts to protect wigeons and other Arizona species. 

Olivo’s work is motivated by a love of where he lives.

“I’ve been here my entire life, so I love Arizona. ... (I want to) understand what’s around here in my state."

Alongside Olivo, others in the molecular virology lab are identifying viruses that exist in other species in and out of Arizona, like honeybees, coyotes, penguins, bobcats and many more.

They are just beginning to understand the huge suite of viruses that exist on Earth. 

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