Viruses that cause devastating pandemics are not exclusive to humans. Prochlorococcus marinus, a marine photosynthetic bacterium, is infected by many viruses – and this ecological interaction has consequences for all of us.
As the most abundant photosynthetic organism on Earth, P. marinus has a vital role in our ecosystem. Collectively, these bacteria absorb about four gigatons (four billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide every year via photosynthesis.
In a newly published paper, researchers at Rice University in Houston studied how bacteriophages, or viruses that infect bacteria, affect photosynthesis in P. marinus. They were particularly interested in ferredoxin proteins, which are involved in transporting the electrons harvested from light during photosynthesis. The ferredoxin proteins of bacteriophages that infect P. marinus were very similar to the proteins of the bacteria themselves that are involved in taking up nutrients. Much like putting a cable to a car battery and using its energy to cook dinner, phages redirect the electrons harvested by the bacteria for their own purposes.
By redirecting light energy to be used in incorporating nutrients instead of storing carbon, phages can offset the abilities of P. marinus to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Thus future studies on the spread of these viruses and how they might change in warming temperatures might be crucial in our projections of climate change.