There are nearly 200,000 species of viruses in the world’s oceans, about 12 times more than scientists previously knew existed.
That’s just one of the discoveries in a new study published in the journal Cell on Thursday. The research, led by scientists at the Ohio State University, has wide-ranging implications, from evolution to biotechnology to climate change.
Matthew Sullivan, a microbiologist at the Ohio State University and one of the study’s authors, called it a road map to understanding how viruses affect ecosystems in the ocean.
“Having that road map helps us do a lot of the things we’d be interested in to better understand the ocean and, I hate to say it, but maybe to have to engineer the ocean at some point to combat climate change,” Sullivan told CNN.
The study revealed that viruses are organized into five distinct ecological zones throughout the ocean.
It also revealed new hotspots of biodiversity – areas that are rich in species but also under threat from human activity. Some of the most surprising hotspots they found were in the Arctic Ocean.
Why the study is important
The new revelations about biodiversity in the Arctic are important because they provide a starting point for further research in the region – one of the hardest hit by climate change. Now that scientists know the Arctic is home to so many species of viruses, they can investigate why exactly that is and how much of that biodiversity will be lost as climate change continues to affect the region, Sullivan said.
The research also creates a massive data set that has biotechnological implications.
“Viruses tend to steal genes and do really interesting things with them. So someone who’s savvy in biotechnology can mine this data set to find new enzymes that can help us in our everyday lives, whether that’s cosmetic products or creating a new thermocycler or some sort of engineering process,” Sullivan explained.
A rotating team of scientists boarded a sailboat called the Tara between 2009 and 2013 and collected water samples from varying depths across many geographical regions. Those samples were then filtered and shipped to dozens of different labs that are part of an effort known as the Tara Oceans Consortium.
The implications of the study
The study could also help scientists better understand how viruses affect Earth’s atmosphere – and how viruses can help mitigate the effects of climate change, Sullivan said.
Marine organisms produce half the oxygen we breathe, and the ocean removes half the carbon dioxide that humans emit into the atmosphere, acting as what Sullivan calls a “climate change sponge.” That process is largely driven by viruses.
Through this research, Sullivan said, scientists could potentially engineer oceans to fight climate change – meaning they could manipulate viruses in a way that would remove even more carbon dioxide from the air.
“There’s a lot of understanding that needs to happen to do that in a societally responsible way, but I think that this kind of study provides quite a foundation to start thinking in that manner,” Sullivan said.