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Ocean-based viruses discovered that trap carbon and combat climate change

In an era where the threat of climate change and carbon emissions loom larger by the day, scientists are delving into the world’s oceans, armed with an extensive catalog of hundreds of thousands of DNA and RNA virus species.

Their goal? To pinpoint viruses capable of enhancing carbon dioxide capture in seawater and preventing methane release from thawing Arctic soil, thereby mitigating climate change effects.

From the depths: Viruses and carbon capture

Researchers, leveraging genomic sequencing data coupled with artificial intelligence, have embarked on a journey to identify and analyze ocean-based viruses.

Their findings reveal a fascinating aspect of these viruses: their ability to “steal” genes from other microbes involved in carbon processing within the sea.

This gene theft aids in the mapping of microbial metabolism, uncovering 340 known metabolic pathways across the global oceans, with 128 pathways also found in ocean virus genomes.

Matthew Sullivan, a professor of microbiology and the director of the Center of Microbiome Science at The Ohio State University, expressed his astonishment at the discovery, “I was shocked that the number was that high.”

AI, the ocean, and climate resilience

This fascinating research has been propelled forward through advancements in computational methods, allowing the team to identify viruses integral to carbon metabolism.

They are now utilizing this information to develop community metabolic models, aiming to predict the outcomes of engineering the ocean microbiome for improved carbon capture.

Sullivan, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver on February 17, 2024, shared insights into the research’s implications.

“The modeling is about how viruses may dial up or dial down microbial activity in the system,” Sullivan said.

“Community metabolic modeling is telling me the dream data point: which viruses are targeting the most important metabolic pathways, and that matters because it means they’re good levers to pull on.”

As the virus coordinator for the Tara Oceans Consortium, Sullivan has played a pivotal role in this three-year global study examining climate change’s impact on the world’s oceans.

Phages as Earth’s physicians

His lab’s focus on phages, viruses that infect bacteria, aims to leverage these microbes in converting carbon into a form that sinks to the ocean floor, thus strengthening the ocean’s role as a carbon sink.

This approach builds on the 2016 discovery by the Tara team that carbon sinking in the ocean is facilitated by viruses.

By causing virus-infected cells to cluster into larger aggregates, carbon is more efficiently deposited on the ocean floor.

The team’s AI-based analytics have identified “VIP” viruses for further study and potential use in ocean geoengineering efforts.

Moreover, the implications of this research extend beyond oceanic health. Sullivan’s lab is exploring the application of these findings in human settings, aiming to use viruses to engineer microbiomes to aid in recovery from spinal cord injuries, improve outcomes for infants born to mothers with HIV, and more.

The future: Engineering viruses to trap carbon

Sullivan also highlighted early efforts to apply phage-based geoengineering strategies to permafrost in northern Sweden, demonstrating the broad potential of these microbial manipulations in various ecosystems.

In summary, the Sullivan’s research marks a significant leap forward in our quest to mitigate climate change through innovative oceanic and permafrost interventions.

By harnessing the power of viruses to enhance carbon capture in the oceans and prevent methane release from thawing Arctic soil, this work deepens our understanding of microbial and viral interactions and forges new pathways for environmental engineering.

As we explore the potential of viruses to act as natural geoengineering tools, the implications for both oceanic health and global climate strategies are profound, offering a glimmer of hope in the fight against climate change.


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