By Jessica McDonaldJun. 17, 2016 , 9:45 AM
Viruses—already the bane of human existence—may also be having an impact on Earth’s climate. A new study reveals that the pathogens steal energy from ocean bacteria, preventing them from sucking up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As a result, viruses could be responsible for billions of metric tons of extra carbon dioxide every year, though the impact on the environment is unclear.
“I think it’s a great study,” says Adam Martiny, a microbial ecologist at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the work. “It adds to this growing notion that to understand the global carbon [cycle], there’s just a lot of different biological interactions.”
The ocean is full of microbes that breathe in carbon dioxide and get their energy from the sun. In fact, by converting this carbon into the building blocks of bodies, so-called cyanobacteria and other ocean microbes sequester—or “fix”—about half of the carbon dioxide on Earth.
But viruses can impact this process. When they attack cyanobacteria, they inject their genetic material, turning the microbes into virtual virus factories. The injected DNA includes photosynthetic genes, suggesting that the viruses—known as cyanophages—might be changing how the bacteria process carbon.