Department: Chemistry & Biochemistry
University System: Montana State University - Bozeman
The last decade has seen a resurgent interest in the study of viruses that lie outside traditional agricultural and medical interests. One reason is the growing appreciation of their enormous abundance within the environment. A second is the impact of these viruses on the greater biosphere. For example, the oceans are thought to contain more than 10 exp31 viruses. This is a truly astronomical number if laid end to end they would stretch for more than 200 million light-years. And because viruses in the environment are constantly infecting and killing their hosts (predominantly bacteria, archaea and protozoa), these infections catalyze the turnover of 20% of the oceanic biomass per day. Thus, they have a truly huge impact on global carbon and nitrogen cycles. We are particularly interested in viruses infecting the archaea, because archaea constitute 20% of the global biomass on earth, because they are largely unstudied, and because the first indications are that they are quite different from viruses infecting bacteria and eukarya. Remarkably, the virosphere has now been shown to extend to almost every known environment on earth, including the extreme acidic, thermal and saline environments where archaeal organisms can be dominant. For this reason, the best model systems for archaeal viruses have come from studies of the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. My lab collaborates with environmental virologists that are studying these viruses, where we are working at the molecular level to help unlock the secrets of these fascinating but poorly understood viruses.