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.
SEE PHOTOS: 10 Nasty Surprises From Climate Change
style="text-align: left;">You've heard a lot about how human-driven climate change will lead to hotter temperatures, cause sea levels to rise and make storms more intense. But it's projected to have plenty of other unpleasant and even disastrous effects as well. Here are 10 of them. Scientists believe that rising temperatures will lead to increased evaporation of the Great Lakes' water, and precipitation won't make up the difference. That means we're likely to see declines in water levels over the next century, and one study predicts they may drop as much as 8 feet.
style="text-align: left;"> Thanks to climate change, jumbo-sized ragweed plants will spew out more pollen for a longer, more miserable allergy season.
style="text-align: left;">By altering the wild environment, climate change makes it easier for newly mutated microbes to jump between species, and it's likely that as a result, diseases will emerge and spread across the globe even more rapidly.
style="text-align: left;">A recent Nature article reported that male Australian central bearded dragons have been growing female genitalia because of rising temperatures, a phenomenon that had not previously been observed in that species.
style="text-align: left;">Rising sea levels are wiping out beaches all over the world already. Importing fresh sand and building them up again is only a temporary solution. To make matters worse, there's currently a sand shortage, due to demand from fracking, glass and cement making.
style="text-align: left;">Bark beetles are eating old growth forests, because the winters aren't cold enough to kill them off. So more trees like this American Elm will die.
style="text-align: left;">Warmer temperatures mean there will be more water vapor trapped in the atmosphere, leading to more lightning. A University of California-Berkeley study predicts that lightning strikes will increase by about 12 percent for every degree Celsius gained.
style="text-align: left;"> Wine grape harvests are being hurt. Regions that have historically supplied the world's best wine will no longer be hospitable climates to grow wine grapes, according to research by the Environmental Defense Fund and others.
style="text-align: left;">Coffee flavor depends upon really narrow conditions of temperature and moisture, and climate change is going to wreak havoc with that. Worse yet, as coffee growing regions become warmer, pests that couldn't survive in the past will ravage the crops. This is already being seen in Costa Rica, India and Ethiopia, which have experienced sharp declines in crop yields.
style="text-align: left;">Scientists say that as ice sheets and glaciers melt, the weight that's removed from the Earth's crust changes the stresses upon volcanoes. That unloading effect can trigger eruptions.