Viruses and Storms

Photo Jun 11, 1 35 19 AM

Epifluorescence microscope, used for taking images of slides

Viruses are everywhere. From the saltwater of the oceans to the rain to the ground we stand on to our food, viruses are among the most prevalent of all organisms. An average of 10^12 viruses exist per milliliter of saltwater. To put that into perspective, a person of about 80kg will have between 10 and 80 trillion cells in their entire body.

While viruses are most well-known for their infectious qualities in humans, they play a large role ecologically. Much of the carbon turnover that takes place owes itself to viruses infecting and destroying microbes. In addition, viruses serve as great markers for change in the environment over time. When the bacterial composition of say, a lake site, changes, different viruses will prosper and others will disappear. By monitoring these changes, scientists learn how effects like high levels of nitrogen affect local systems.

That brings us to a major question: why then aren’t viruses more widely studied? Many researchers investigate links between viruses and humans, and many engineers and physicists investigate utilization of viruses for medicine, but few investigate what viruses already do. What does run-off do to local systems? How effective are water treatment plants? What kinds of pressure are we applying to delicate systems, and what will the changes be for us?

Luckily, with funding from the Virginia Environmental Endowment, I have been able to take part in a project that aims to answer many of these questions. In particular, my study focuses on how run-off affects the flow of viruses from nearby areas into storm water retention ponds. In the upcoming posts, I will write more about the methodology of my experiment in general, along with some updates about how data collection is going!