Understanding Viral Infections Within Complex Microbial Food Webs

Microbes perform important functions in ecosystems, and these functions are shifting as a result of global warming. Scientists now know that most microorganisms are infected with viruses, but they know very little about how these viral infections can affect how microbes respond to warming.

Microorganisms affect the flow of energy and matter within ecosystems, but they are also subject to infection by viruses. Scientists do not fully understand how viral infections will alter ecosystem functioning in a rapidly warming world. Image Credit: Wieczynski, D.J., et al., FEMS Microbiology Ecology.

In this study, scientists discuss numerous ways that rising temperatures could influence viruses and their microbial hosts. These alterations may eventually affect the responses of entire ecosystems to warming.

The study reveals several significant gaps in researchers’ understanding of the relationships between viruses, warming, and ecosystem functioning. These gaps must be filled to understand and forecast the effects of climate change on ecosystems.

The Impact

The current research provides a road map for understanding the numerous ways in which viruses may influence the consequences of warming on microbial communities. Viruses are anticipated to have a significant impact on microbiological processes and the functioning of ecosystems. Incorporating these previously overlooked effects into ecosystem models will assist scientists in improving their predictions of how ecosystems may adapt to climate change.


Microorganisms serve key roles in ecosystems by regulating the flow of energy and matter via processes such as photosynthesis (carbon uptake), respiration (carbon release), and decomposition (carbon recycling).

Climate change is currently changing the way organisms interact within microbial food webs, which is changing how ecosystems function. Scientists are aware that viruses can have a significant impact on microbial activities, but they are less certain about how these effects will change as a consequence of global warming.

Researchers from Duke University, the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, the University of Tennessee Knoxville, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory assessed the potential effects of warming on viruses and how this might modify the scientific understanding of ecosystem responses to climate change in this research. Warming is anticipated to impact numerous stages of the viral infection cycle, as well as virus-host dynamics.

There are, however, substantial gaps in the understanding of these consequences. Filling these gaps is crucial to understanding how warming will alter the movement of energy and matter within ecosystems because viruses are ubiquitous across all environments and have profound effects on microbial functioning.

According to preliminary models developed by the researchers, viruses have the capacity to tip the scales on natural carbon balances, causing some ecosystems to shift from being net carbon sources (emitting more carbon than they retain) to net carbon sinks (absorbing carbon). This research demonstrates how introducing viruses into predictive models might result in new and unanticipated consequences on ecosystems as a result of climate change.

Journal Reference:

Wieczynski, D.J., et al. (2023) Viral infections likely mediate microbial controls on ecosystem responses to global warming. FEMS Microbiology Ecology. doi.org/10.1093/femsec/fiad016.

Source: https://www.energy.gov

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