Montana State University

MSU research on viruses in Yellowstone hot springs nets $2M grant

October 24, 2013 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Mark Young, professor of virology with the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the Montana State University College of Agriculture, is the principal investigator on a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the evolutionary effects of viruses in Yellowstone's hot springs ecosystems. MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN – The National Science Foundation recently awarded a five-year, $2 million grant for a collaborative study led by a Montana State University microbiologist to explore the role of viruses in shaping ecosystems in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.

Mark Young, professor of virology with the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the MSU College of Agriculture who has long studied the dynamics of microbial life in Yellowstone’s hot springs, is the principal investigator on the project. The multi-institutional study will include co-principal investigators Joshua Weitz of Georgia Tech University and Rachel Whitaker of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

By combining biochemical and genetic techniques to study the interaction and exchange of genetic content between viruses and host organisms, the team is investigating how viruses may influence the diversity and function of microbial communities and the ecosystems that support them, Young said. The study will look beyond the traditional view of viruses as pathogens and will explore an alternative notion – that the constant cycle of viral infections contributes to the evolution of the host (and its environment) and actually strengthens the host by aiding in its ability to fight infection by even more pathogenic viruses.

“The big question behind our work in Yellowstone is what role do viruses play in the evolution of life on Earth,” Young said. “Science has had a very biased view of the role of viruses, primarily because of the view that viruses are agents that cause human disease. But it’s increasingly well accepted that viruses are a reservoir of genetic diversity on this planet.”

Sometimes dubbed the “University of the Yellowstone,” MSU has a long history of doing groundbreaking science based in the biochemistry of Yellowstone’s extreme environments. Likewise, the National Science Foundation has been a longtime sponsor of MSU’s research into the park’s hot springs.

“MSU has a strong reputation for leading the way in the area of thermal biology, particularly when that work focuses on the organisms that inhabit extreme places like the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park,” said Anne Camper, MSU’s interim vice president for research, creativity and technology transfer. “We are pleased that the National Science Foundation is continuing its strong support for Dr. Young’s investigation of the viruses that influence these environments.”

Young is a founding scientist of MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute, which has been discovering and studying the organisms found in Yellowstone’s varied thermal environments since 1999. The multidisciplinary TBI is currently composed of 15 faculty members with backgrounds in biochemistry, geochemistry, microbiology, virology, mycology, ecology, plant physiology and environmental physics.

TBI’s research happens in many of the park’s most famous and visited geyser basins, Young said, and a trip to Norris Geyser Basin might yield something science has never known before.

“I would hope that when Yellowstone visitors look at those thermal environments, they will realize that they are looking at a scientific treasure trove of microbial life,” Young said. “Every time they are watching a CSI show on TV, the forensic science they are seeing portrayed has its origins in Yellowstone’s hot springs.”

It was Thermus aquaticus, a bacterium discovered in Yellowstone in 1966 that contained the heat-resistant enzyme responsible for launching the multi-billion dollar DNA-sequencing industry.

Young said biomedical and geotechnical technologies with a scientific debt to Yellowstone discoveries account for sales of more than $1 billion annually worldwide. Young said investments made in fundamental science are the first step in creating that kind of economic vitality.

“This grant from the NSF allows us to continue a tradition of using these unique ecosystems to open our eyes to new scientific discoveries that we hope will become new practical applications that can benefit each and everyone of us,” Young said.

Young’s work on the viruses also recently received support from a new two-year, $360,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. Both the NIH and NSF grants directly support student research and offer invaluable opportunities for undergraduates to participate in lab and field work, Young said. There are 12 people working in Young’s lab, including a postdoctoral researcher, a doctoral candidate, an undergraduate researcher and nine lab technicians.

The benefit to studying the hot springs in Yellowstone lays precisely in their extreme nature, as well as in their relative rarity and geochemical uniqueness, Young said.

“We’re talking about pools of boiling acid, so we know that the only organisms that survive there are a very few single-celled organisms and the viruses that replicate in them,” Young said. “They are essentially island-like ecosystems. So we can compare how viruses behave in different springs and begin to see how they influence genetic changes that take place within those microbial communities.”

In describing the outsized role played by these microscopic blocks of genetic code known as viruses, Young likes to point to their role in driving the cycle of life in the oceans, home to a vast majority of the planet’s microbial life, as well as viruses. In a single day, those oceanic viruses infect and kill an estimated 20 percent of the oceans’ single-celled organisms. So, on average, in less than a week, the entire microbial biomass of the world’s oceans die off and get renewed.

But evolutionary influence of viruses goes beyond the promotion of genetic traits in those organisms that survive, Young said. A significant portion of the DNA of life on earth is comprised of genes that come from viruses.

The hypothesis that sits at the root of the project, Young said, is an assertion that viruses actually invent and introduce new genes into living organisms, spurring evolutionary change.

“In biology, I can’t think of a more important question to ask than how ecosystems operate and how evolution has worked and continues to work on this planet,” Young said. “I think it’s completely safe to say that humans wouldn’t exist in our present form without the influence of viruses.”

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371 or