This action funds an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology for FY 2020, Broadening Participation of Groups Under-represented in Biology. The fellowship supports a research and training plan for the Fellow that will increase the participation of groups underrepresented in biology. Where life is found, so too are viruses. Viral life abounds in the air, water and soil. With each new infection, viruses can have a profound impact on their hosts by altering genes, affecting host diversity and abundance, and influencing cycles in biology and the environment. In the oceans, microorganisms drive nutrient and energy cycles and make up more than 90% of the living biomass, yet the pervasiveness of viral life on the seafloor remains largely unknown. The recently discovered Lost City hydrothermal field, with its towering carbonate monoliths venting warm, high pH fluids, represents one of the most unusual earth systems described to date. This project will examine the role of viruses in the Lost City chimneys, which has not been previously explored. Characterizing viral diversity and abundance in the Lost City, will lead to a better understanding of capacity of viruses to thrive in extreme conditions, and reveal the role viruses play in extreme ecosystems, which are relevant to the origins of life. To broaden the impact of the project, the fellow will produce educational videos for schools and mentor underserved students in research at the university.
Viral diversity in the Lost City will be explored through the analysis of metagenomes from chimney biofilms and hydrothermal fluids venting from the chimneys. In addition to identifying viral sequences, the metagenomic sequences of archaea and bacteria will be examined for evidence of viral infections through the identification of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat) sequences in host genomes. CRISPRs provide a record of previous viral infections of that host, so cataloging the distribution of viral-derived sequences encoded within CRISPRs in the metagenomes will provide a window into the network of virus-host relationships. The Fellow will also examine the morphologies of viral particles from Lost City chimneys to identify novel virus morphotypes and open doors for future research to characterize extreme virus structures, protein stability, and virus evolution. The combination of metagenomic and morphological approaches will provide a first look at the limits of viral activity in high-temperature, high-pH environments, and it will shed light on viral-mediated evolutionary processes in deep subsurface environments. The Fellow will cultivate public engagement by collaborating with the Genetic Science Learning Center (University of Utah) to create educational videos and lessons that can be used in K-12 classrooms. Mentorship of low-income and underserved high school and college students through the University of Utah?s Upward Bound and TRIO programs will also be integrated into the research program.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.