A new study suggests that RNA viruses that infect plankton might be able to change the carbon capture properties of the ocean and therefore its role in carbon cycling.
The recent discovery shines more light on the diversity of RNA viruses that reside in the ocean, as opposed to the DNA viruses that have been studied more extensively and are known to take part in marine ecosystems.
Study co-author and virologist at Ohio State University Guillermo Dominguez-Huerta is confident that RNA viruses have an impact on the global ocean ecosystem.
Prior to this research, the same team had discovered over 5,500 new marine RNA viruses, which spurred the subsequent study that focused, among other things, on the hosts that these new viruses infect.
According to their findings, the newly discovered viruses typically tend to infect fungi and other species of plankton known as protists.
In contrast, their DNA counterparts have been observed to prefer bacteria as their hosts.
The significance of this fact is that some of the plankton that RNA viruses infect play a critical part in the ocean’s carbon cycling, as when they die, they settle at the bottom of the ocean, acting as a carbon sink and storing away CO2 for millions of years.
RNA viruses have been found to alter the metabolic pathways of their hosts’ cells, suggesting that they can also influence one of the ocean’s carbon pumping mechanisms.
The study found the novel viruses to be present in four different ecological zones (one less than the zones occupied by DNA viruses): Temperate and Tropical Mesopelagic, Temperate and Tropical Epipelagic, the Arctic and the Antarctic.