STATEN ISLAND, NY — A scan of ocean waters around the world has uncovered a wealth of previously unknown viruses, researchers have reported.
An international team of researchers has tracked ocean microbes and identified 5,500 RNA viruses, according to research published last week in the journal Science. The study has helped expand understanding of the diversity of viruses in the world’s oceans and their potential link to adaptation to climate change.
“RNA viruses are clearly important in our world, but we usually only study a tiny fraction of them – the few hundred that harm humans, plants and animals,” said Matthew Sullivan, lead author and professor of microbiology at Ohio State University. output. “We wanted to systematically study them on a very large scale and explore an environment that no one had examined in depth, and we were lucky because virtually all of the species were new, and many were really new.”
Ocean microbes, like plankton, play a vital role in the underwater ecosystem and are also responsible for transmitting viruses like those tracked by researchers. These types of RNA viruses are thought to be responsible for killing cells, altering the way infected cells handle energy, and transferring genes from one host to another, the researchers said.
By better understanding the extent and diversity of RNA viruses in the ocean, scientists can begin to focus on a key process of ocean adaptation to climate change: how carbon is stored.
The world’s oceans are absorbing a massive amount of human-generated carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas primarily responsible for global warming – and researchers in the new study said marine viruses could play a key role in the carbon dioxide removal process.
“These efforts provide fundamental knowledge essential for the integration of RNA viruses into ecological and epidemiological models,” the study authors wrote.