Ocean waters are home to a huge variety of virus species, and surprisingly, some of them may in fact help store carbon on the ocean floor. Recently researchers found that these tiny particles could contribute to the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere and its long-term storage on the ocean floor. In simple terms, this means we could delay the harmful effects of climate change for maybe another few hundred years or so!
This spectacular discovery was made by American scientists from Ohio State University who published their findings in the journal Science. The researchers conducted an in-depth analysis of about 5,500 marine RNA virus species – a virus in which the genetic information is stored in the form of Ribonucleic acid (RNA) as opposed to DNA. “The viruses 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,” said scientist Matthew Sullivan, who led the study.
Also read: World Ocean Day: What Would Happen if All the Ice in the World Melted?
Sullivan envisioned identifying viruses that, when engineered on a massive scale, could function as controllable “knobs” affecting 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. We’re growing more and more aware that we might need to tune the pump at the scale of the ocean,” added Sullivan.
These RNA viruses were detected in plankton samples collected by the “Tara Oceans Consortium”, a global study on the impact of climate change on the ocean. The main aim of the research project is to predict how the ocean will respond to climate change by studying the organisms that absorb half of the human-generated carbon in the atmosphere and produce half of the oxygen we breathe.
Researchers stated that these marine viral species infect organisms using their cellular machinery to make copies of themselves. While this is bad for the host, the virus could generate environmental benefits, such as reducing a harmful algal bloom – a phenomenon where toxin-producing algae grow excessively in a body of water.
Also read: How will climate change affect our future?
The study also made note of a significant presence of marine RNA viruses in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. This is a phenomenon that the research team had not anticipated, given that biodiversity is typically denser and more varied in tropical regions than in polar zones. “When it comes to diversity, viruses don’t care about the temperature,” mentioned one of the co-authors.
Further analysis by the researchers identified 1,243 species of RNA viruses related to carbon export. Eleven of these also appeared to play a significant role in driving carbon export towards the seafloor. “The findings are important for model development and predicting what is happening with carbon in the correct direction and at the correct magnitude,” concluded Ahmed Zayed, the study’s co-first author.
1. Do marine microbes affect climate change?
There has been evidence that marine viruses interact actively with the present climate change and are a key biotic component that is able to influence the oceans' feedback on climate change. However, there isn’t any substantial evidence as to whether these viruses would increase or delay the effects of climate change.
2. What can microbes teach us about adapting to climate change?
Microorganisms have several vital roles in ecosystems: decomposition, oxygen production, evolution, and symbiotic relationships. They can also help plants to adapt to warming temperatures and provide them with more nutrients as plants increase the rate of photosynthesis because of rising carbon concentrations.
3. How does climate change affect marine biodiversity?
The ocean absorbs most of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions, leading to rising ocean temperatures. Increasing ocean temperatures, in turn, affect marine species and ecosystems. Rising temperatures are also said to cause coral bleaching and the loss of breeding grounds for marine fishes and mammals.
4. Are viruses important in the ocean?
Viruses are by far the most abundant lifeforms in the oceans and are the reservoir of most of the genetic diversity in the sea. Marine viruses form a major part of the microbial food web and help control the abundance and diversity of bacteria and algae.
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