Viruses Could Help Fight Climate Change

Viruses play a role in the oceans' ability to store excess carbon. Scientists are now considering a way to harness this process and put the brakes on climate change.

The research ship Tara, above, gathered samples that helped scientists to identify some of the vast number of ocean viruses. Credit: Yohann.cordelle via Wikimedia Commons We're used to thinking of viruses -- which cause human diseases ranging from the common cold to HIV -- as our enemy. But when it comes to climate change that's been driven largely the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity, scientists are hoping that that the teeming multitude of tiny microbes in the oceans may help to rescue us.

In a new study published in the journal Nature, a team led by Ohio State University scientists report that they've identified 15,222 distinct marine viruses, about three times the number previously documented -- and notes that new number may only amount to less than 1 percent of the full number. According to the researchers, the viruses can be grouped into 867 "clusters" that are similar to genus-level groups. 38 of those clusters are abundant, cumulatively accounting for about half of the oceans' viruses.

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Viruses are so abundant in the oceans that they infect about a third of all cells of aquatic organisms who live there. But while viruses are bad news for the life forms whose cellular function they alter and impede, the scientists found evidence that they also play a larger role in the oceans' ability to slow down the planet's warming by absorbing greenhouse gases and energy.

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For example, the scientists discovered four metabolic genes, implanted by viruses in other organisms, that may directly influence sulfur and nitrogen cycling in the epipelagic ocean, the portion where photosynthesis takes place.

"Our work not only provides a relatively complete catalog of surface ocean viruses, but also reveals new ways that viruses modulate greenhouse gases and energy in the oceans," Matthew Sullivan, the study's senior author and an OSU associate professor of microbiology, said in a press release.

The researchers are hoping to learn more about viruses' role in how the oceans help to put the brakes on climate change -- and possibly, to figure out how to boost them to slow down the warming even more.

"The ocean is a major buffer against climate change," Sullivan said. "Our suspicion is that people will leverage this buffer to their benefit. They could find ways to fine-tune viruses so that they sink carbon into the deep ocean."

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The idea of genetically engineering viruses to fight diseases and perform other beneficial functions has been around for a while, and in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration approved a genetically engineered virus called talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC) to treat advanced melanoma.

The idea of unleashing altered microbes into the environment might seem risky since viruses have the ability to change dramatically on their own. Sullivan doesn't foresee it happening for at least a couple of decades, but predicted that it probably will be necessary to take such measures to to manage climate change, according to the OSU press release.

The information in the study came from ocean samples collected by the Tara Oceans and the Malaspina expedition. It was analyzed by lead author Simon Roux, a postdoctoral scientist in Sullivan's lab.

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