In viral ecology, if a virus is a puzzle piece, then the whole virus community is a mixed bag of different puzzles, made up of tens of thousands pieces.
Scientists at Ohio State discovered new puzzle pieces in marine waters that could one day help reduce greenhouse gases. They recently published their work in the scientific journal “Nature”.
“Viruses have been and are still amazingly understudied,” said Simon Roux, who lead the study. “Only recently did we understand how to see, count and access them.”
For this study, researchers analyzed samples other scientists collected during two, long-term sea expeditions: The Tara Oceans Expedition and the Malaspina expedition.
Viruses look similar; in order to differentiate between viruses, scientists group them by their genetic information called “clusters.” This is done through what Roux calls “in silico,” or computer analytics.
Roux and his team tried to identify which clusters of viruses impact sulfur and nitrogen, two important compounds in the ocean. Sulfur and nitrogen can be toxic to plants and animals and are also air pollutants.
Roux hopes to use this data to make a “roadmap” of marine virus diversity.
“The best we can do is to point at the few viruses, among the tens of thousands, that we believe might have a critical role,” Roux said. “So hopefully, in the next 10 years, some of the candidates we highlighted here will be further studied that way, and may become key components of our ecosystem models.”
The study’s findings might help the environment by reducing carbon in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gasses are made up of carbon, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which have a global impact on Earth’s climate.
Additionally, so do microorganisms, or microbes, which often use and recycle carbon. When these microbes are infected by viruses, Roux and his team studied the relationship between these microbes and viruses.
“It is critical to understand how these viruses can influence … other organisms, and to be able to correctly predict these organisms responses to environmental changes, and possibly, although in a slightly more distant future, use these viruses to increase favorable microbes, or conversely limit unwanted ones,” Roux said.
Although this puzzle is far from complete, this study provides at least a few pieces to help Earth’s global climate.
“Ten years ago I would never have dreamed that we could establish such an extensive catalog of ocean organisms around the world,” said Matthew Sullivan, associate professor of microbiology, in a news release.
Roux said although the research sheds new light on the environment, the problem posed by climate change is still pressing.
“We obviously don’t have all the answers yet,” he said. “These global changes are happening right now, regardless of our understanding of our acknowledgement of their reality.”