September 27, 2022
How 'Viral Dark Matter' May Help Mitigate Climate Change

A deep dive into the diversity of 5,500 marine RNA virus species that scientists recently identified has found that several may help to drive carbon absorbed from the atmosphere to permanent storage on the ocean floor. Results from the analysis, which was headed by a team at Ohio State University, also suggest that a small portion of these newly identified species had “stolen” genes from the organisms they infected, helping researchers identify their presumed hosts and functions in marine processes.

Beyond mapping a fount of foundational ecological data, the research could give scientists a fuller understanding of the outsize role that these viruses play in the ocean ecosystem. “The findings are important for model development and predicting what is happening with carbon in the correct direction and at the correct magnitude,” said Ahmed Zayed, PhD, a research scientist in microbiology at The Ohio State University and co-first author of the team’s published report in Science.

The question of magnitude is a serious consideration when taking into account the vastness of the ocean. Lead author Matthew Sullivan, professor of microbiology at Ohio State, envisions identifying viruses that, when engineered on a massive scale, could function as controllable “knobs” on a biological pump that affects how carbon in the ocean is stored. “As humans put more carbon into the atmosphere, we’re dependent on the massive buffering capacity of the ocean to slow climate change,” Sullivan said. “We’re growing more and more aware that we might need to tune the pump at the scale of the ocean. We’d be interested in viruses that could tune toward a more digestible carbon, which allows the system to grow, produce bigger and bigger cells, and sink. And if it sinks, we gain another few hundred or a thousand years from the worst effects of climate change. I think society is basically counting on that kind of technological fix, but it’s a complex foundational science problem to tease apart.”

The oceans are dominated by plankton communities that are essential to sustain life on Earth, the authors explained. “Plankton are at the base of the food web for marine and terrestrial organisms and drive planetary biogeochemical cycles.” Marine plankton are also central to the biological carbon pump, the team continued, “… because their activity determines whether dissolved carbon dioxide is assimilated into biomass that can be sequestered to the deep ocean or recycled in surface waters and likely released to the atmosphere.”

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