Thousands of viruses unknown to science have been discovered.  Their role is more important than it might seem

Seas and oceans are full of viruses whose genomes are made of RNA. While research on “normal” viruses is relatively easy even with current methods, RNA viruses present a much greater challenge.

The results of the largest study on this topic to date are presented in pages Sciences. The team was led by Guillermo Domínguez-Huerta of The Ohio State University. He and his colleagues analyzed hundreds of thousands of DNA viruses in samples collected between 2009 and 2012 in the past. At the time, scientists determined that they are concentrated in five major ecological regions, and the greatest diversity is in the Arctic Ocean.

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This time, focusing on RNA viruses, the researchers identified more than five thousand of them. It turns out that almost all of them are unknown to science until now. Curtis Satell of the University of British Columbia points out that the study results show just how diverse there is between viruses.

Thousands of RNA viruses will surely be discovered

One area that members of the research team focused on the most is the role of viruses in carbon sequestration. Every day, huge amounts of dead plankton sink to the ocean floor. Because it consists of carbon, among other things, it can be trapped deep under the surface for up to millions of years. Each year, 12 gigatons of carbon are deposited in this way, which is roughly one third of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with human activity.

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At least 11 of the newly discovered RNA viruses infect plankton, Dominguez Huerta and the rest of the researchers say, which could measurably affect their degradation process. Unlike DNA viruses, which primarily infect bacteria and archaea, RNA viruses infect more complex plankton. Based on computer models, scientists are even able to predict the scale of the carbon cycle in relation to the amount of viruses in a given area. By understanding how specific RNA viruses affect plankton breakdown, researchers can to some extent direct this process. In addition, the authors note that some RNA viruses found in the ocean have the ability to alter their host’s metabolism using their own genes.

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