Mining the Ocean for Viruses: Researchers at the University of Texas A&M at Galveston Aim to Understand the Role of Ocean Viruses in Overall Ocean Health

By: Laura Pulscher, MSc, PhD

Figure 1: Dr. Jessica Labonté, MS, PhD, aboard the JOIDES Resolution, the research vessel she is sailing on over the summer.

Dr. Jessica Labonté, MS, PhD, meets me on zoom in the midst of packing for her upcoming two-month expedition to collect sediment samples from below the surface of the earth. With the help of mining ships, Labonté and colleagues will work in 12-hour shifts to collect subsurface samples which her team will then characterize to understand microbial communities under the seafloor, in sediment and ocean crust. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University (TAMU) at Galveston and principal investigator of the Viral Ecology Laboratory, Labonté studies the complex role of viruses in the aquatic environment.

When asked about One Health, Labonté mentions she first heard about the One Health concept when she started work at TAMU at Galveston. From an environmental health perspective, viruses play an important role in the health of aquatic ecosystems, including in nutrient recycling and various biogeochemical processes. Labonté works to understand the role of viruses in ecosystem health. For example, in a recent paper published in Microorganisms, her team determines if marine viruses are altered by extreme weather events, such as large rain events. To explore this hypothesis, Labonté’s team looked at how viral communities in Galveston Bay were impacted over five weeks following Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 hurricane. Results demonstrated that viral assemblages were significantly decreased and altered, and that this was primarily driven by the dramatic drop in salinity following the storm. The investigators also found new viruses, including freshwater viruses previously seen at low concentrations, present after the storm in greater quantities. This change in viral communities may also have altered the carbon cycle at an accelerated rate which may have impacts on the overall health of the ecosystem. As ocean viruses kill bacteria to restore nutrients in the ocean, there is concern that if these extreme rainfall events occur more often this balance could be impacted, which would have a dramatic impact on coastal ecosystems.

Labonté states that the ocean is also a goldmine that can help us solve the origins of life. We can’t study viral evolution without knowing what other non-human viruses are present, she states, and it’s very unlikely that viruses have a single origin. In a recent perspective in Science, she touches upon the importance of studies that are filling in this missing gap. She hopes that her continued research will expand our limited knowledge on ocean viruses and their overall impact on environmental health as well as public health.

The Woods et al. publication on the impact of Hurricane Harvey on viral assemblages in Galveston Bay can be found here.

The Labonté and Campbell perspective on the importance of studying ocean viruses to understand the evolution of viruses can be found here.


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