More immediately, scientists hope to learn more about the central role phytoplanktonand virusesplay in regulating climate. Bidle says this is a particularly interesting virus. "It appears that the virus hasborrowed, copied actually, the genes for this lipid from the host," he says. "Similar genes are still on the host, but the virus has figured out a way to take those genes and put them into its own genome, and alter them enough to make them more toxic."
"We find the biosynthetic pathway for this unique lipid encoded in the virus genome, not only in the host, and this has never been described before in any other virus," Vardi says. "We knew that [lipids] were important, but we were really intrigued about why the virus contained these genes. And what is the role of the pathway in the co-evolution of programmed cell death in the host and virus."
Van Mooy sees it as a struggle between two mighty forces. "The phytoplankton are at one end of the boxing ring and they're taking up carbon dioxide, and the viruses are at the other end, and they're out to kill them. And how that works out controls how much carbon dioxide is taken up.
"We're very interested in understanding what controls these phytoplankton," he says. "I didn't know that much about viruses until I started working on this project and the Rutgers researchers didn't know that much about lipids. So now we're both really onto something here. We're continuing to collaborate. "We have found other interesting lipids from these viruses," says Van Mooy.
"There are probably more out there. And who knows what kind of activities they may be involved with. They may hold a cure for a human disease or they may play unknown role inphytoplankton.
"I'd like to think [the work] is going to have a continued impact."
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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution