There are innumerable scary pathogens living in the world, some of which we aren’t aware of and may be affected by without even realizing it. Such is the case with the newly discovered “stupidity virus,” uncovered by University of Nebraska researchers while conducting a study using throat swaps from healthy volunteers.
ACTV-1, informally dubbed the “stupidity virus” due to its cognitive effects, is an astounding discovery, not just because of how it affects the human body’s DNA, but because it is a virus formerly thought to exist only in green algae of lakes and rivers. Classified as a chlorovirus, ACTV-1 was found in 43.5 percent of almost 100 study participants in what researchers are calling a very rare case of cross-kingdom infection.
“Chloroviruses are worldwide,” said senior author James Van Etten, William Allington Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology, in a press release. “They’re very common among inland bodies of fresh water such as lakes and ponds. But I don’t know of many examples of viruses jumping from one kingdom to another. If this turns out to be true, this is quite rare and a total surprise.”
While it was surprising enough that a DNA-altering virus could be found in both plants and humans, how the virus affected participants was equally intriguing. Study volunteers carrying DNA of the chlorovirus performed measurably worse than those without it on tests of visual processing and spatial orientation.
“This is a striking example showing that the ‘innocuous’ microorganisms we carry can affect behavior and cognition,” said lead investigator Robert Yolken. “Many physiological differences between person A and person B are encoded in the set of genes each inherits from parents, yet some of these differences are fueled by the various microorganisms we harbor and the way they interact with our genes.”
Not wanting to take the cognitive findings at face value, the researchers conducted another test, this time with laboratory mice. Healthy mice were divided into two groups; one group was a control group and the second group was dosed with ACTV-1. Just as in the human participants, researchers noted mice with the chlorovirus showed significant cognitive impairment. Mice with the chlorovirus showed deficits in recognition memory and attention while navigating mazes.
It’s not yet known; however, if the virus can actually replicate in human cells or if it is just present due to exposure. A virus from the plant kingdom that could replicate in the human body could warrant the development of an entirely new class of pharmaceuticals to combat the effects. It’s also possible there are other cross-kingdom viruses in the body, but current scanning technology can only detect larger pathogens.
“People have conducted studies looking for more conventional viruses and bacteria in throat swabs, but the way those studies were done meant that they could have easily missed the ones that we work with,” Van Etten said. “Viruses are almost always thought to be very small. Researchers filter out other components when theyre identifying viruses, and chloroviruses are so big that they would’ve been caught in those filters.”