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Can Viruses Control Microbes?

Steven Wilhelm

Microbiology, or the study of microorganisms, has been a growing field since microscopes revealed the existence of these tiny organisms. Microbes have been shown to have far reaching impacts, including in a number of functions of the human body, plant and animal waste decomposition, and more. Microbes are widely recognized as important parts of life on this planet, despite being previously unknown.

Steven Wilhelm, Kenneth and Blaire Mossman Professor of microbiology, believes there may be another community that plays an important role on the planet but is overlooked as microbes once were; viruses.

“We’ve known for 25 to 30 years that there are literally hundreds of thousands of viruses in every drop of water, be it ocean water, river water, or puddles that form after rainstorms,” said Wilhelm.

Despite this abundance of viruses, Wilhelm says they are quite fragile and must reproduce quickly to maintain their large population. The way viruses do this is typically by killing things and making new viruses. Wilhelm believes viruses are doing this in microbial communities, impacting the health and size of those communities.

“We became engaged because we were curious about what types of processes could be controlling microbes other than chemistry, and in my lab that’s usually viruses. Our goal is to begin to understand the effect these viruses are having on the microbial community. Are they controlling some members of the community, all members of the community, are they doing nothing at all? We are really trying to quantify and understand what may be happening in terms of the biology,” said Wilhelm.

In the first year of Wilhelm’s JDRD project, his team gathered enough preliminary data to generate a publication in the Journal of Applied Environmental Microbiology. He describes the results of this data analysis as exciting as they not only confirm the presence of a great deal of viral activity but also point toward the potential importance of viruses infecting single cell organisms.

“We typically look at viruses that infect the dominant species, but we started to notice that there were these other viruses that were very abundant, but they should be infecting the much less dominant species,” said Wilhelm. “It made us start to think that what these viruses are doing is repressing these organisms that would otherwise take over.

A team including Wilhelm, his collaborator Dale Pelletier and David Weston, senior staff scientists in ORNL’s Bioscience Division, and two colleagues from Duke university – Assistant Professor of Biology Jean Philippe Gilbert and Professor of Biology Jonathan Shaw – were recently awarded $3.1 million by the U.S. Department of Energy. They plan to leverage the unique skill set of each partner to further investigate the impact of viruses on the microbial community. Wilhelm credits the work on his JDRD project for his contribution to this proposal.