Drifting photosynthetic microbes in surface ocean waters carry out nearly half of global carbon (C) fixation, both supporting the marine food web and reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. The fate of C in ocean ecosystems is controlled by myriad individual interactions within a highly interconnected planktonic food web, the sheer complexity of which has hindered predictive understanding of global C cycling. Chemical cues govern microbial interactions, and during infection, marine viruses manipulate the metabolism of phytoplankton and bacteria, facilitating the release of dissolved organic matter from infected cells. This research aims to determine how viral metabolic reprogramming of and organic matter release from intact, infected phytoplankton influences microbial interactions and C cycling. The interdisciplinary, collaborative nature of the project will enable direct training of two postdoctoral researchers, one graduate student, and undergraduate students in viral ecology, microfluidics, and metabolomics. An educational outreach program that engages middle school students in hands-on, high speed imaging of microbes will be expanded, and the project will culminate in a three-day workshop to advance the application of microfluidic devices and mass spectrometry analyses in microbial ecology.

The overarching hypothesis behind this research is that viral infection alters the chemical landscape of intact, infected picophytoplankton cells, attracting neighboring chemotactic bacteria and protistan zooplankton, and altering C flux pathways. To test this idea, a series of linked multi-scale laboratory-based experiments will be run to 1) Characterize the response of diverse model marine microbes to dissolved organic matter (DOM) released from intact, virus-infected picophytoplankton using microfluidics-based chemotaxis assays, 2) Identify key viral-derived DOM compounds eliciting chemotactic responses using stable isotope labeling, metabolomics analyses, and chemotaxis assays, and 3) Quantify micron-scale cross-trophic encounter dynamics and evaluate their impact on bulk-scale C cycling using liter-scale measurements of C dynamics linked to high spatiotemporal resolution live imaging of microbial food webs. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a mechanistic understanding of the role of intact, virus-infected cells in oceanic C cycling.

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.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE)
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Michael Sieracki
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Tufts University
United States
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