Montana State University

MSU professor’s talk will link Yellowstone research and a new view of viruses

January 29, 2015

MSU professor Mark Young will discuss how MSU research in Yellowstone National Park is expanding our understanding of the role viruses play in the world. The lecture is set for 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9, at the Museum of the Rockies' Hager Auditorium. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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While the prevailing view of viruses is connected with disease, Mark Young, professor of plant sciences and plant pathology at Montana State University, would like to see viruses get some credit for helping shape life on planet Earth.

As part of the ongoing Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series, Young will detail how MSU research in Yellowstone National Park is expanding our understanding of the roles viruses play in the world. Titled “A changing view of viruses: Viruses from Yellowstone’s extreme environments,” the free lecture is set for 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 9, at the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. A reception will follow.

“A new view of viruses is emerging in which viruses are seen as important biological entities required for and even beneficial to their hosts,” said Young, a founding co-director of MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute. “Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on the planet and are found wherever life is found. Despite their abundance, we have only a limited understanding of their diversity and function in nature.”

Young is the principal investigator on the Dimensions in Biodiversity project, a multi-institutional study of the role of viruses in natural ecosystems that was funded by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant. Young is also principal investigator for a National Institutes of Health-sponsored grant to explore the use of viruses in nanotechnology. Young has played an important role in MSU’s long history of biochemical research in Yellowstone’s extreme environments.

Young’s presentation will explore the relationships between viruses replicating in boiling acid and the viruses infecting humans, as well as the new evolutionary relationships uncovered by looking at viruses from Yellowstone’s thermal environments.

“The extreme environments of Yellowstone’s geothermal features provide perfect hunting grounds for new viruses infecting some of the most unusual forms of life,” Young said.  “Our discovery and analysis of these new viruses is changing our view of viruses, both in terms of their diverse roles in ecosystems and their impact on the past and present evolution of life on earth.”

Young is recognized internationally for his scholarly contributions and leadership activities in the field of virology, and he has published more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on this topic. Through these efforts, MSU has become a leading university for the study of archaeal viruses and supports post-docs, graduate students and undergraduates, as well as visiting scientists from around the world. 

In addition to Yellowstone, Young has been actively pursuing virology inquiries in Kamchatka, Russia, and the Andes. His findings have been featured by National Geography, the Discovery Channel, Wired magazine and the BBC. His scholarly achievements have been recognized at MSU and nationally: He received the Charles and Nora L. Wiley Faculty Award and the Technology and Science Award from MSU, and he was elected to be a fellow of the American Society of Microbiology and serves on the executive board for the American Society for Virology.

When asked to give an example of how viruses can help shape life as we know it, Young often points to Earth’s oceans as an example of an environment where viruses drive the cycle of life: In a single day, oceanic viruses infect and kill an estimated 20 percent of the oceans' single-celled organisms; and, on average, in less than a week, the entire microbial biomass of the world's oceans dies off and gets renewed.

“But the importance of viruses goes well beyond that – a significant portion of the DNA of life on earth is comprised of genes that come from viruses,” Young said.

The hypothesis that drives his work in virology suggests that viruses actually invent and introduce new genes into living organisms, spurring evolutionary change, Young said.

“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.”

The Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, which is free and open to the public, recognizes outstanding MSU faculty for their scholarship and leadership. Faculty presenting during the series will reflect on the inspirations for their work in lectures suited for professionals and lay people alike.