Ohio researchers found that marine viruses could help channel carbon absorbed from the atmosphere into permanent storage on the ocean floor.

Going viral: Marine viruses could hold a key to climate change mitigation

This spring, an international team of scientists studying climate change’s effect on the ocean identified 5,500 new species of marine RNA viruses. After diving deeper into these species with the help of machine learning-driven analyses, Ohio State University researchers have learned that several of the viruses might help channel carbon absorbed from the atmosphere into permanent storage on the ocean floor.

What are these viruses?

RNA is a molecule with some biological operations similar to DNA, but it is shorter and single-stranded. Although plenty of information exists about DNA viruses, little is known about the diversity, ecology, and ecosystem roles of RNA viruses. 

Like land-based viruses, the marine viruses infect other organisms, mostly fungi and microbes — they do not harm human health. The viruses can “reprogram” certain metabolic processes, including carbon cycling, within a host. “Carbon export” occurs when hosts migrate downward and carbon is sequestered deep within the ocean floor for years or even centuries.

Predicting the export process

The researchers are developing data-rich computational techniques to analyze usable information and behavior patterns from RNA viruses. This will help scientists better understand the viruses’ role in ecosystems and with carbon sequestration. 

“The findings are important for model development and predicting what is happening with carbon in the correct direction and at the correct magnitude,” said Ahmed Zayed, a research scientist in microbiology, in a news release.

They concluded that the amount of RNA viruses present within an environment could predict carbon export in aquatic environments. So far, the researchers have identified 11 groups of RNA viruses that significantly influence carbon stored in the ocean.

The lead study author envisions that these viruses could be engineered on a large scale to serve as “knobs” that could “tune” a biological pump to determine how carbon is stored in the ocean.

“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,” said Matthew Sullivan, microbiology professor. “We’d be interested in viruses that 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.”