VIRUS (Latin) – POISON
‘Virus’ is one of the most negative words. When we hear it we think about a computer virus or an agent causing a disease. AIDS and HIV, hepatitis and HBV,HCV,HDV,etc.
Biological viruses are tiny mobile pieces of genetic machinery, infectious chromosomes if you like. They are not organisms (though recently discovered giant viruses may change this notion). Viruses are molecular devices, only able to propagate within cells they infect. They transfer genetic information in the form of nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) from one cell to another, from one organism to another, not forgetting to copy itself as much as the host cell would tolerate it. Virus infection often creates a severe disturbance in a cell metabolism, causing a disease or, in many cases, death.
Until recently, virology has been tightly linked to genetics and pathology. But now it constitutes a significant part of ecology as well. Especially in the ocean.
Sea water contains between one and ten million of viral particles per milliliter.How awesome is that. The Suttle lab also tells you that
The estimated 1030 viruses in the ocean, if stretched end-to-end, would span farther than the nearest 60 galaxies.
Most of these viruses infect micro-plankton (and nanoplankton) – microscopical bacteria and algae. In the past, macro-plankton like ciliates, rotifers and tiny arthropods were considered to regulate the biomass of the micro-plankton, preventing the overgrowth of bacteria or algae that can be quite toxic for other organisms. Recently, it has been shown that sea viruses infect and destroy the huge bulk of micro-plankton. The released organic matter either goes into the sediment or stays in the water and is consumed by other organisms and/or turned into inorganic matter.
Viral regulatory impacts are not to be underestimated. Virus infection limits over-expansion of certain microscopical mechanisms and is therefore important for homeostasis (equilibrium) in marine environment.
Dr Curtis Suttle talks on importance of marine virology
Some marine cells like cyanobacteria (blue green algae) and dinophyte algae produce highly toxic compounds for humans and other animals. Viruses that destroy them are therefore beneficial to prevent the accumulation of toxins and their producers in the sea water.
In my new novel Made in Bionia, there’s a bioterrorist plot to poison the ocean, which exemplifies how messing with micro-plankton and viruses can trigger an ecological catastrophe. I aimed to show that tiny things can have a huge planetary impact and become a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands as well as a cure in the right.
For too long, the micro-cosmos of the ocean has been ignored by ocean biologists. But with the advent of high-throughout sequencing many more microscopical lifeforms have been discovered, including new viruses, and marine virology and viral ecology are new exciting disciplines. And they are changing our view of viruses as not just infectious agents causing disease but a major force that regulates the well-being of ecosystems.