Several of the 5,500 species of marine RNA viruses recently discovered by scientists may help push carbon absorbed from the atmosphere into permanent storage at the bottom of the ocean, according to a study.
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The results also show that a small number of these newly discovered species have “borrowed” DNA from infected animals, which could help researchers determine their putative hosts and their functions in marine processes.
A better understanding
The research leads to a better understanding of the disproportionate impact of these small particles on the ocean environment, in addition to mapping a multitude of fundamental ecological data.
“The results are critical for building models and anticipating what is happening with carbon in the right direction and at the right scale,” said Ahmed Zayed, the paper’s co-first author and microbiology researcher. at Ohio State University.
When considering the vastness of the ocean, the subject of size is a crucial concern.
Ohio State University microbiology professor Matthew Sullivan plans to discover viruses that, when created on a large scale, can act as programmable “buttons” on a biological pump that controls how carbon is deposited in the ocean.
“We are becoming more and more aware that we may have to adjust the pump on an ocean scale,” he said. Sullivan says society is relying on this technological remedy, but it’s hard to fix.
Science published the study online.
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These RNA viruses were discovered in plankton samples collected by the Tara Oceans Consortium, a global study of the impact of climate change on the ocean conducted aboard the schooner Tara. The international effort aims to learn more about the mysterious organisms that live in the sea and do most of the work of absorbing half of the human-generated carbon from the atmosphere and producing half of the oxygen we breathe to predict how the ocean will respond to climate change.
Although these marine virus species are not harmful to humans, they function like all viruses, infecting another creature and harnessing its cellular machinery to replicate. Although the consequence can still be dangerous to the host, the actions of a virus can have environmental benefits, such as helping to disperse a toxic algal bloom.
The key to determining their place in the ecosystem has been the development of computational approaches capable of extracting information about the activities and hosts of RNA viruses from tiny segments of the genome according to genomic standards.
Guillermo Dominguez-Huerta, a former postdoctoral researcher in Sullivan’s lab, remarked, “We let the data guide us.”
The team used statistical analysis of 44,000 sequences to classify RNA virus communities into four ecological zones: arctic, antarctic, temperate and tropical epipelagic (closest to the surface, where photosynthesis occurs) and mesopelagic temperate and tropical (most relative to the surface, where photosynthesis occurs) (200-1000 meters deep). These zones are similar to zone designations for the nearly 200,000 species of marine DNA viruses discovered earlier by researchers.
There were unexpected results. While biodiversity tends to increase near the equator and decrease near the poles, Zayed said a network-based ecological interaction study found that the variety of RNA virus species in the Arctic and Antarctica was higher than expected.
“Viruses don’t care about temperature when it comes to variety,” he said. “The wide variety we see in the polar regions is great because we have more viral species vying for the same host. We observe fewer host species but more viral species infecting the same animals,” explains the searcher.
To identify possible hosts, the researchers used a combination of methods, first inferring the host from the categorization of viruses in the context of marine plankton, then generating predictions based on how the amounts of viruses and hosts “co-vary” since their abundances depend on each other. Finding evidence of RNA virus incorporation into cellular genomes was the third technique.
“The viruses we’re looking for don’t insert into the host genome, but many do by mistake, which is a host clue because if you find a viral signal in the host genome, that means the virus was in the cell at some point,” Dominguez-Huerta explained.
While most dsDNA viruses infect bacteria and archaea, which are prevalent in the ocean, this recent study found that RNA viruses primarily infect fungi and microbial eukaryotes and invertebrates at a lesser level. Only a small percentage of marine RNA viruses can infect bacteria.
The researchers also discovered 72 distinct and functionally different helper metabolic genes (AMGs) scattered among 95 RNA viruses. These have provided some of the best clues about the types of organisms these viruses infect and the metabolic processes they attempt to reprogram to maximize virus “manufacturing” in the ocean.
(Photo: Photo: Lance King/Getty Images)
Other research based on the network found 1,243 RNA virus species linked to carbon export, with 11 suggested to be active in facilitating carbon export to the ocean floor. Two viruses related to algal hosts were chosen as the most promising targets for further investigation.
“We’re getting to the point where we can create metabolic maps from bags of genes,” says Dr. Richard Sullivan, associate professor of biogeosciences.
Sullivan, Dominguez-Huerta and Zayed are members of Ohio State’s EMERGE Biological Integration Institute.
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