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Viral nutrition: new study reveals microbes nourished by consuming viruses

  • Published
    19th Jan, 2023

Recently, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have reported that a particular genus of plankton, namely Halteria, can ‘grow and divide given only viruses to eat’. This could be significant for the marine food chain.

  • A new study, published on December 27, 2022 by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that there are microbes that can destroy viruses.
  • A particular genus of plankton can consume viruses as well as “grow and divide given only viruses to eat”.

We already know of other cells that can ‘consume’ viruses in an effort to destroy them — such as the macrophage cells of the human immune system.

  • The difference highlighted in the new findings is that there are microbes that are able to ‘eat’ viruses to fulfil one’s biological imperatives.
  • According to the researchers, Plankton of the genus Halteria can each consume 10,000 to a million virus particles a day, increase their population using the metabolised energy, and provide more food for the zooplanktons that consume the Halteria.

What is Halteria plankton?

  • Plankton is microscopic organisms that can only move with a current. They don’t have any facilities to actively propel themselves.
  • Halter plankton belongs to ciliates, meaning they have hair-like structures called cilia on their surface.
  • Sometimes they can beat some of these cilia to jump short distances, but not often as it they can’t do this often because it requires too much energy.

How does Halteria consume viruses?

  • Halteria plankton is found in large numbers in freshwater bodies.
  • They are heterotrophs meaning they can’t produce their own food. Instead, they are well-known bacterivores — they consume bacteria to power themselves.
  • They infect and kill both bacteria and plankton, releasing organic matter that dissolves in the water.

In the new study’s paper, the authors wrote that by also consuming viruses for nutrition, Halteria plankton can recover the nutrients lost in the viral shunt and bring them back into the food chain.

  • This flow would depend on virion size and nutritional content, which varies among strains.

Plankton contributes to the food chain:

  • A type of plankton — the phytoplankton — is found nearer the surface of many water bodies. It is an autotroph, which means it can make its own food which it does by consuming carbon dioxide, among other compounds, through photosynthesis. Small fish and larger plankton called zooplankton eat phytoplankton for their nutrition; they are in turn eaten by larger fish, and so forth.
  • When phytoplankton dies, they drift around where they are, becoming part of a coastal nutrient cycle, or they drift down towards the seafloor, where they decompose. Their constituents then become available for microbes or are sequestered into the seafloor.
  • So, phytoplankton brings carbon and other nutrients from the atmosphere and sea surface down to the seafloor and help replenish the food chain (and also ‘trap’ carbon into their own bodies and as sediments). They are joined by bacteria that make their own food by oxidising sulphur, iron or hydrogen, in a process called
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