Viruses are responsible for much more than sore throats and stuffy noses. Researchers now believe that some viruses may protect hosts from competitors and help them survive. Despite the fact that viruses are practically everywhere and affect every living thing, scientists know very little about their positive impact on their hosts.
The National Science Foundation awarded a five-year, $2-million grant to Rachel Whitaker, a microbiologist at the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, and an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional team to explore the idea of viruses and their hosts coevolving together in the lab in the model system of hot springs at Yellowstone National Park.
"I hope to find that viruses are not just pathogensthat they are influencing dynamics in a bigger way," said Whitaker, who is leading the Illinois team. "Sometimes they are good for their hosts, acting as symbionts or mutualists. I think it would be really neat if there were little infectious particles that could help the organisms they infect to survive and compete against their foes."
Preliminary data has already shown that if an organism survives infection, it can use the virus to kill its competitors in the environment.
"It was once thought that viruses infect a microbe and kill it, or they don't infect at all," Whitaker said. "We have realized, given genomics and metagenomics, that it is a much more complex dynamic. Now we are asking, if hosts can use their viral infection as a weapon against their competitors, how does that affect these populations and their ecosystems? It's a new way of looking at things."
Through laboratory experiments, Whitaker's team will study host-viral interactions, including the costs and benefits of chronic (long-term) infections. Mark Young, a professor of virology at Montana State University, will study these interactions in a natural hot spring using a device developed by Sascha Hilgenfeldt, a
|Contact: Nicholas Vasi|
Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign