A virus connected to hepatitis C, found in Asian bats, can help trace the roots of the hepatitis C virus and offer us a clue as to how diseases are transmitted to humans from other species.
Transmitted by blood transfusion or sexual intercourse, hepatitis C is a common cause of liver failure.
Viruses related to hepatitis C, known as GB-viruses, have previously been found only in primates.
Led by Dr. W. Ian Lipkin at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, the researchers used gene sequencing methods, and confirmed the viral genetic material in the serum of five of 98 bats, and in the saliva of one, to be related to GBV-A and -C viruses.
Further analysis of the two identified strains, tentatively named GBV-D, suggests that P. giganteus bats are a natural reservoir for this virus.
According to researchers, the fact that bat saliva can contain GBV-D nucleic acids provides a biologically plausible mechanism for this agent to be transmitted from infected bats to other hosts, including humans.
Bats are often important hosts for emerging infectious disease agents with significant impact on human health including rabies, ebola, Marburg, hendra, nipah, and SARS viruses.
Opportunities for transmission to humans are particularly prominent in countries like Bangladesh, where people live in close association with bats.
"This discovery underscores the importance of international programs focused on microbe hunting in hot spots of emerging infectious diseases," said Lipkin.
"Finding this novel flavivirus in bats significantly broadens the host range of GB-like agents and may provide insights into the origins of hepatitis C," added Dr. Thomas Briese, lead molecular biologist on the team.
"The Indian subcontinent and South Asia are areas where we are ardently working to identify the next possible pandemic disease. Identification of the natural reservoir of a virus, even if it may not directly infect people, is critical to surveillance and reducing the risk of outbreaks of infectious disease," stated Peter Daszak, President of Wildlife Trust," noted Jonathan Epstein, associate vice president of Conservation Medicine Programs at Wildlife Trust.
The findings of the study are published online in the publication PLoS Pathogens.