Montana State University

MSU receives $1.37 million to create "viral tree of life"

January 18, 2010 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service


Mark Young and his team recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to identify and categorize viruses from extreme environments around the world. (MSU photo)   High-Res Available

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Montana State University researchers are looking more closely at the most abundant form of life-like entities on earth--viruses.

This fall, the university received a grant of $1.37 million over five years from the National Science Foundation. The money will allow faculty members and students at MSU to broaden the understanding of the viral world and its relationship to cellular life.

"We are known for finding bizarre viruses," said Mark Young, professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology and the grant's principal investigator.

Young and his team will be using molecular technology to identify and categorize viruses from extreme environments around the world, primarily very hot and very acidic places. They are looking for viruses with no known relatives.

They will collect hundreds to thousands of viruses and try to match their genetic material to genes scientists have already categorized. When Young and his group find a virus whose genes do not match known genes, they will know they've found something special.

Young will then classify the new viruses and create a "viral tree of life". Much like a tree of life for other life forms, this tree will show who is related to whom. Unlike the better known tree of life, the viral tree of life will almost certainly be more than one tree; it may even be a forest.

"Whereas cellular life has one common ancestor, viruses have had multiple, individual ancestors," Young said. "We don't know how many there are, but we hope to contribute to finding out how many trees are in the forest."

The results of Young's work will be added to the National Institute of Health's National Center for Biotechnology Information's database.

Genetic information from all over the world is collected in this database and is accessible to other scientists and the public. Young will also distribute information from the tree(s) of life through scientific journal articles.

In addition to the advancement of science, there are other benefits to Young's project. According to Young, 20 percent of the microbial life in the ocean is killed every day by viruses. That means most of the life in the ocean is turned over every five days. That likely holds true for terrestrial life, too.

"There are more viruses than cells on the planet. It's impossible to imagine making good policy decisions on ecosystem management without knowing what life is on the planet," Young said. "Just knowing what earth supports is critical."

Young also said that there is more and more evidence that the vast majority of genes were created by, or associated with, viruses, and the evolution of most life is dependent on viruses.

"To understand how life evolved on the planet, you have to understand viruses," said Young.
Having a better understanding of viral life may lead to new antibiotics and other medicines that improve the lives of people.

"Many of the antibiotics we have now come from a very narrow understanding of microbial life," Young said. "Finding new viruses may lead to new sources of microbes that can benefit society."

Young has been working with viruses for 25 years and has found many with practical applications.

One virus he and others have studied is Cowpea chlorotic mottle virus (CCMV). He helped develop nanotechnology applications in medical imaging and drug delivery, as well as new approaches to building electronic devices using CCMV.

Most of the grant monies, about 80 percent according to Young, will be used to fund people including graduate students, post docs and technicians. The remainder will be used for supplies, including some from local biotechnology industries.

"We face losing a generation of scientists who come to a lab like mine for training," Young said. "There are not a lot of jobs available right now for research scientists, so the real value of this grant is to be able to support them for a longer period of time. When the economy turns around, these are the people who will be innovating."

This grant was awarded through the NSF's Office of the Director and the Biology Director. The money for this award comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

John Sherwood, Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology Department Head, at (406) 994-5153 sherwood@montana.edu