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Steven Wilhelm

Are Viruses Impacting Microbial Communities?

Microbes affect everything from the human body to the decomposition of plant and animal waste in the environment. The health and habits of these organisms can have a huge impact on every facet of life. Steven Wilhelm, professor of microbiology, believes viruses hold similar importance. 

“The world as we know it now is really a microbial planet. Microbes are the interface of our daily lives and how the world works,” he said. “They recycle nutrients, they play important roles in carbon fixation and photosynthesis—and these microbes are all susceptible to viruses.”

Viruses are incredibly abundant: hundreds of thousands of them can exist in a puddle. According to Wilhelm, they’re also quite fragile, meaning they must reproduce quickly to maintain such a large population. 

To study these viruses further, Wilhelm and his team have partnered with Dale Pelletier, senior staff scientist in the Biosciences Division at ORNL. Pelletier is studying the microbial community within sphagnum, or peat bogs. Sphagnum is responsible for approximately 20 percent of the carbon storage on the planet. 

Wilhelm and student Helena Pound“It acts as such a good carbon sink because the sphagnum plants themselves change the chemistry of the system so that typical microbes do not grow very well. As a result they don’t break down the carbon, so as the sphagnum dies the carbon builds up,” said Wilhelm.

His team is investigating what could be controlling the existing microbes in the peat bogs other than chemistry. He believes the answer is viruses.

Doctoral student Helena Pound is currently working with bioinformatics to determine how prevalent these viruses are. Her work will include snapshots as well as work over time, which should provide a better picture of how the viruses operate.

“I believe in 10 to 15 years, we will realize viruses are just as important as microbes,” said Wilhelm. “When we then build models of how these microbial systems work, we’ll have to start to account for the viral community.”