Virus-infected bacteria could fight climate change

By CINDY JIANG | February 28, 2019

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Researchers discovered that interactions between microbe organisms could help stabilize marine ecosystems.

Viruses. Bacteria. These two words don’t typically have positive connotations when mentioned in common contexts, but that doesn’t mean they are only capable of doing harm. 

The concept of beneficial bacteria is not foreign, as we are introduced to good bacteria in everyday situations such as in the cup of yogurt you have for breakfast. And viruses are the basis for vaccines that people receive to prevent illness. 

Now, more often than not, “germs” is the umbrella term used when referring to viruses and bacteria, which casts them in a bad light in the eyes of the general public. 

However, viruses don’t always work against their microbial hosts and kill them. Rather, a mutually beneficial relationship is a likely result — in such cases, the invading virus succeeds in establishing itself inside the host microbe while simultaneously providing the microbe with immunity against viruses of the same type.

According to Alison Buchan, a Carolyn W. Fite professor of Microbiology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, this relationship furthers milestones in multiple fields, including medical research, practical applications and marine biology.

“Marine microbes are uniquely responsible for carrying out processes that are essential for all of earth’s biogeochemical cycles, including many that play a role in climate change,” Buchan said in a press release.

A microbial community is not inherently good or bad, but its function is strongly dictated by its composition, like what microbes are present and in what concentrations. Similar to other organisms, bacteria compete for the resources in their community, producing antibiotics as a byproduct in the fight against other bacteria. 

Scientists such as Buchan are only now considering the possibility of bacteria using viruses as weapons against other types of microbes, in principle with that mutually beneficial relationship previously described. 

Buchan explained the significance of the new discovery in the press release.

“We have recently discovered that while they are in the process of dying, microbes can produce new viruses that then go to attack their original invader. This is a form of resistance we had not observed before,” she said.

The competitive interaction exhibited by microbial communities is vital to stabilizing the sizes of microbial populations in marine ecosystems. 

The resulting balance closely impacts biogeochemical processes — some with links to climate change. 

Therefore, the idea that bacteria are working in conjunction with viruses to establish boundaries in their ecosystems leads to the preservation of these processes that influence climate change. 

Climate change continues to be a large issue in today’s society. David Wallace-Wells, author of the book The Uninhabitable Earth and deputy editor of New York Magazine, described what the future may look like under global warming in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. 

“As temperatures rise, this could mean many of the biggest cities in the Middle East and South Asia would become lethally hot in summer, perhaps as soon as 2050,” Wallace-Wells wrote.

He also detailed how rising sea levels would effect different parts of the world, and their respectively different ecosystems and environments.

“There would be ice-free summers in the Arctic and the unstoppable disintegration of the West Antarctic’s ice sheet, which some scientists believe has already begun, threatening the world’s coastal cities with inundation. Coral reefs would mostly disappear,“ he said.

Wallace-Wells went on to describe what the human impact would be. 

“There would be tens of millions of climate refugees, perhaps many more, fleeing droughts, flooding and extreme heat, and the possibility of multiple climate-driven natural disasters striking simultaneously,” Wallace-Wells wrote.

Currently, the climate has warmed one degree Celsius from preindustrial levels, but if that statistic rises to two degrees Celsius, Wallace-Wells’ predictions will become a reality.

Wallace-Wells went on to warn what would happen if the average global temperature increased two more degrees past what it currently is. 

“Two degrees would be terrible, but it’s better than three, at which point Southern Europe would be in permanent drought, African droughts would last five years on average, and the areas burned annually by wildfires in the United States could quadruple, or worse, from last year’s million-plus acres,” he wrote.

However, Wallace-Wells noted that any efforts to keep warming to a minimum would help and that three or four degrees would be more disastrous.

“Three degrees is much better than four, at which point six natural disasters could strike a single community simultaneously; the number of climate refugees, already in the millions, could grow tenfold, or 20-fold, or more; and, globally, damages from warming could reach $600 trillion — about double all the wealth that exists in the world today,” he wrote.

It is clear that if temperatures continue to rise, there will be devastating results for the entire planet. For now, virus-infected bacteria are doing their best at contributing to keeping biogeochemical processes, including the carbon cycle, at bay.

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