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April 15, 2024
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Scientists identify a new factor influencing climate change.

Researchers at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at The Ohio State University, have discovered that viruses infecting microbes play a role, in influencing climate change by impacting methane cycling.

Their study, which involved examining DNA from environments highlights how the environmental effects of these viruses differ depending on the habitat. This research emphasizes the interplay between viruses, microbes and methane emissions indicating the necessity for investigation into the roles viruses play in climate dynamics.

This study has unveiled that viruses targeting microbes contribute to climate change by participating in the process of methane cycling—a greenhouse gas—across various ecosystems.

Through an analysis of 1,000 sets of DNA data collected from 15 different habitats spanning lakes to even inside a cows stomach scientists have identified that microbial viruses possess specific genetic elements known as auxiliary metabolic genes (AMGs) that regulate methane related processes. The prevalence of these genes varies depending on the organisms habitat highlighting how viruses environmental impact can fluctuate based on where they reside.

ZhiPing Zhong, lead author of the study and a research associate at The Ohio State University, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. Noted that this discovery provides insights, into how methane cycles through ecosystems.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

The Impact of Viruses on Greenhouse Gas Production.

Viruses have helped foster all of Earth’s ecological, biogeochemical, and evolutionary processes, but it’s only relatively recently that scientists have begun exploring their ties to climate change. For example, methane is the second-biggest driver of greenhouse gas emissions after carbon dioxide, but is largely produced by unicellular organisms called archaea.

“Viruses are the most abundant biological entity on earth,” said Matthew Sullivan, co-author of the study and a professor of microbiology at the Center of Microbiome Science at Ohio State. “Here, we expanded what we know about their impacts by adding methane cycling genes to the long list of virus-encoded metabolic genes. Our team sought to answer how much of the ‘microbial metabolism’ viruses are actually manipulating during infection.”

Vrana Lake, in Croatia. There, in the rich mud of the lake, the team found many tiny life genes that make and break methane. They also found many tiny virus groups and 13 kinds of AMGs that help lead the tiny life’s work. Even so, there’s no sign that these viruses make methane genes, so it looks like the effect of viruses on methane changes by where they live, said Zhong.

Livestock and Environmental Impacts.

Generally, the study shows a lot of methane genes in the cow’s stomach, whereas fewer of these genes were found in environmental habitats, such as in lake sediment. Since cows and other livestock are also responsible for generating about 40% of global methane emissions, their work suggests the complex relationship between viruses, living beings, and the environment as a whole may be more intricately tied together than scientists once thought.

“These findings suggest that global impacts from viruses are underestimated, and deserve more attention,” said Zhong.

Though it’s unclear whether human activities might have affected the evolution of these viruses, the team expects new insights gleaned from this work will raise awareness about the power of infectious agents to inhabit all life on Earth. Still, to keep learning more about these viruses’ inner mechanisms, further experiments will be needed to understand more about their contributions to Earth’s methane cycle, said Zhong, especially as scientists work toward ways to mitigate microbially driven methane emission.

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Croatian Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the European Union, and the U.S. Department of Energy. Co-authors include Jingjie Du of Ohio State, as well as Stephan Kostlbacher and Petra Pjevac from the University of Vienna, and Sandi Orlić from the Ruđer Bošković Institute.


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