13 new papillomaviruses discovered in Antarctic seals

Viral finds on the frozen frontier.


Papillomaviruses are non-enveloped, circular, double-stranded DNA viruses known to infect squamous and mucosal epithelial cells. There are 53 genera and 133 viral species whose members infect a variety of mammalian, avian, reptilian, and fish species.

Scientists at Arizona State University recently discovered 13 novel papillomaviruses carried by Antarctic seals. The discovery could help scientists understand the evolution of papillomaviruses.

Until now, scientists studying papillomaviruses have looked for the viruses in humans. Now, scientists are excited about searching for viruses in creatures that other scientists have overlooked to add to our knowledge about viruses overall.

Every scientist at Varsani Lab aims to close the enormous information gap regarding the types of viruses present in our environment. However, scientists seek viruses in various habitats, including the Canadian lynx, ASU’s honeybee colonies, New Zealand parrots, and even Tempe’s Kiwanis Park ducks. Because she is fascinated by Antarctica, Regney focuses on animals found there, mainly seals and penguins. 

Regney and her colleagues investigated three different species of Antarctic seals—Weddell seals, leopard seals, and Antarctic fur seals—using tissue samples; only the Weddell seal species had been examined before. After comparing the genomes of those viruses with those of known papillomaviruses, Regney’s team sequenced the viruses’ genomes and discovered 13 novel papillomaviruses, 11 of which are entirely new viral kinds.  

Regney and her colleagues employed a phylogenetic, or evolutionary tree, to show the evolution of papillomaviruses and their degree of relatedness following the sequencing of the new viruses. They discovered that the papillomaviruses that infect other carnivores are most closely linked to the viruses that infect Antarctic seals. This suggests that papillomaviruses are species-specific and most likely co-evolved with each species.

Furthermore, the researchers discovered that nine of the viruses they identified—including the human papillomaviruses HPV 16 and 18—had a gene that may be carcinogenic. Regney’s team recommends that more research be done to determine whether these viruses are causing cancer in Antarctic seals to save the iconic animals, even though they are unsure of the answer.  

Regney expects this will be far from her last article in an academic journal, even though it is her first. Throughout her PhD, she intends to conduct additional studies on identifying and classifying Antarctic viruses. She also wants to visit Antarctica to collect samples of the species she studies.  

Regney said“It was the best experience of my life. You feel so small. Everything else is so big and meaningful, and you get to be part of it. If there is any opportunity, I want to go back.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Melanie Regney et al. Diverse papillomaviruses identified from Antarctic fur seals, leopard seals and Weddell seals from the Antarctic. Virology. DOI: 10.1016/j.virol.2024.110064


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