Metagenomics reshapes the concepts of RNA virus evolution by revealing extensive horizontal virus transfer

Virus Res. 2018 Jan 15;244:36-52. doi: 10.1016/j.virusres.2017.10.020. Epub 2017 Nov 8.


Virus metagenomics is a young research filed but it has already transformed our understanding of virus diversity and evolution, and illuminated at a new level the connections between virus evolution and the evolution and ecology of the hosts. In this review article, we examine the new picture of the evolution of RNA viruses, the dominant component of the eukaryotic virome, that is emerging from metagenomic data analysis. The major expansion of many groups of RNA viruses through metagenomics allowed the construction of substantially improved phylogenetic trees for the conserved virus genes, primarily, the RNA-dependent RNA polymerases (RdRp). In particular, a new superfamily of widespread, small positive-strand RNA viruses was delineated that unites tombus-like and noda-like viruses. Comparison of the genome architectures of RNA viruses discovered by metagenomics and by traditional methods reveals an extent of gene module shuffling among diverse virus genomes that far exceeds the previous appreciation of this evolutionary phenomenon. Most dramatically, inclusion of the metagenomic data in phylogenetic analyses of the RdRp resulted in the identification of numerous, strongly supported groups that encompass RNA viruses from diverse hosts including different groups of protists, animals and plants. Notwithstanding potential caveats, in particular, incomplete and uneven sampling of eukaryotic taxa, these highly unexpected findings reveal horizontal virus transfer (HVT) between diverse hosts as the central aspect of RNA virus evolution. The vast and diverse virome of invertebrates, particularly nematodes and arthropods, appears to be the reservoir, from which the viromes of plants and vertebrates evolved via multiple HVT events.

Keywords: Horizontal virus transfer; Metaviromics; RNA viruses; Virus evolution; Virus metagenomics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthropods / virology
  • Disease Transmission, Infectious / veterinary*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Gene Expression
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genome, Viral*
  • Metagenomics / methods*
  • Nematoda / virology
  • Phylogeny*
  • Plants / virology
  • Prokaryotic Cells / virology
  • RNA Viruses / classification
  • RNA Viruses / genetics*
  • RNA Viruses / isolation & purification
  • RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase / classification
  • RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase / genetics*
  • Vertebrates / virology
  • Viral Proteins / classification
  • Viral Proteins / genetics*


  • Viral Proteins
  • RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase