'Stupidity virus' found to be a contamination – University of Copenhagen

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06 February 2015

'Stupidity virus' found to be a contamination

A paper in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) at the end of October 2014 drew a considerable amount of public interest, with headlines in mainstream media like 'scientists discover stupidity virus'. The PNAS-paper reported the presence of an algae virus in the throat of healthy humans and it established links to impaired cognitive function.

Now a research team from University of Copenhagen and the Technical University of Denmark has shown that this virus originates from laboratory component contamination. From the results it is clear, that currently there is no scientific evidence of the algae virus being linked to impaired cognitive function in humans.

Of men and mice

In the original paper in PNAS, scientists from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and University of Nebraska reported that they had found a virus, ATCV-1, in throat samples from a number of healthy humans taking part in a study on cognition. This virus is usually associated with fresh water algae and is not known to infect other species. By performing various cognitive tests on the participants, the researchers found that those infected with ATCV-1 performed worse on these tests.

Next, the scientists injected algae with and without the ATCV-1 virus into the mouths of a number of mice. The mice that received the virus performed slower than the virus-free mice. However, a GenomeDenmark research team from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen and the Centre of Biological Sequence Analysis at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), published today a letter in PNAS where they refute these controversial results.

Dr. Anders J. Hansen from the Centre for GeoGenetics explains:

- We screened 289 human specimens and detected DNA originating from ATCV-1 in 16 samples from 7 different types of cancer (including skin, colon, bone marrow and breast). More importantly, we saw the virus in a non-template control where no human sample was added, which is a strong indicator that the viral DNA originates from laboratory reagents. We were able to correlate the presence of ATCV-1 in our samples with two laboratory reagents that are used together in the protocols. Furthermore we found other algae viruses in our samples. Thus, we could conclude that ATCV-1 originates from laboratory component contamination.

Dr. Jose MG Izarzugaza, Associate Professor at DTU, highlights the importance of exercising extreme caution in the interpretation of high-throughput sequencing data. He concludes:

- Reflexive and (self-)critical assessment of the experimental observations is mandatory to avoid erroneous conclusions. It will turn out as a well invested effort as a number of examples of the contrary in the recent literature lead to withdrawal of the papers after criticism by the scientific community.

GenomeDenmark, the Danish Platform for Large-scale Sequencing and Bioinformatics: The GenomeDenmark platform provides infrastructures and know-how for large-scale sequencing and bioinformatics to allow users to perform cutting edge genomics. To demonstrate application of data in biological fields relevant to diagnostics and medicine, the platform is undertaking two large demonstration projects. Both the Centre for GeoGenetics and the Department of Systems Biology at the Technical University of Denmark are part of GenomeDenmark.

Letter in PNAS

Traces of ATCV-1 associated with laboratory component contamination. (Kristín Rós Kjartansdóttir, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1423756112)


Dr. Anders J. Hansen, Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen. ajhansen@snm.ku.dk; tel. +45 2875 6134

Communications Officer Uffe Wilken, ugwilken@snm.ku.dk; tel. +45 4018 5992.

Photo credit

Mikal Schlosser