Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged in 2002 to 2003 in southern China. The origin of its etiological agent, the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoVs), remains elusive. Here we report that species of bats are a natural host of coronaviruses closely related to those responsible for the SARS outbreak. These viruses, termed SARS-like coronaviruses (SL-CoV), display greater genetic variation than SARS-CoV isolated from humans or from civets. The human and civet isolates of SARS-CoV nestle phylogenetically within the spectrum of SL-CoVs, indicating that the virus responsible for the SARS outbreak was a member of this coronavirus group.