$2 million grant funds Yellowstone virus research

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Montana State University a 2 million dollar grant to study viruses and their impact on ecosystems in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. The project will span a five-year period and officially began Oct 1.

Mark Young, MSU virology professor and initiator of the research project shared that this grant is unique in that its purpose is to facilitate exploration. Although similar research has previously been performed on these types of viruses, Young defined this award as a “discovery-based fundamental science grant, focused on discovering brand new kinds of viruses that science has never seen.” An additional role of the research is “trying to understand the role of these viruses in how ecosystems function,” said Young. A primary question the grant asks is how the evolution of an ecosystem would change if viruses were removed from the equation.

Generally viewed as pathogens, viruses attract negative attention and are an area of science that is less understood, said Young, who wishes to alter this stereotypical view. “Viruses are by far the most biologically abundant entities on this planet,” he noted, commenting that the majority of genetic diversity we encounter is held within viruses. He later added that “viruses tell you how life works.”

On account of this, Young sees viruses as major drivers of evolutionary development; investigating that idea further is a major purpose for the grant. “Viruses and virus-like entities were present when life was first evolving,” Young said, “because they always were together and had to interact, they’ve influenced each other dramatically.” Humans would not exist in their present state without the presence of viruses.

[pullquote align=”right”]“If you want to understand life, you need to understand viruses.” –Mark Young[/pullquote]

The research project is a cooperative effort, uniting Young and two additional individuals: Rachel Whitaker, a microbial ecologist from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Joshua Weitz, a computational modeler from Georgia Tech University. The three have worked together for a number of years, including under a NASA-supported research grant. “Science is an international endeavor … no single person has all these skills,” Young said, “You all come together and contribute.” This cooperation adds enjoyment and fun, he noted. Although most view research as solitary, Young laughed at this idea. “Science is totally social!”

Students are involved in the project, giving undergraduates, graduates, and post-doctorates the opportunity to work in Young’s lab. “Nothing changes their career trajectory more than getting involved with research,” Young said of his students. Andrew Morin, a biotechnology senior at MSU, has been involved with Young’s lab since May of 2012. He previously participated in observing and monitoring changes in YNP’s hot spring environment over periods of time. Morin foresees a potential outcome of the research being, “The advancement of scientific perspective on evolution, given the high similarity between the hot springs and the theorized early-earth environment.”

Morin also noted that this type of research is not entirely predictable. “[It] is much like looking under random stones,” he said, “Sometimes you get nothing, sometimes you kick one over and find something entirely new that no one has ever even thought to look for.” Morin shared that research involvement is important to a student’s career, saying “The primary value lies in the introduction of a fresh generation to the nuts and bolts of the laboratory,” when additionally, “weeding out those who discover they are unsuited to the field, and providing hands-on experience, a resume bullet and references for those who choose to stay.”

The hot springs of Yellowstone seem a hostile environment to perform research in, yet that is partially why they were chosen. “Where else in the world is there a better place to try and understand life in extreme environments than Yellowstone?” Young said, adding that the advantageous location facilitated the uniting of his research team.

Although many aspects of Young’s research have been deliberate, there is an element of exploration through them all. “We didn’t start there thinking we were going to do this.” Young said, “We don’t know where the discoveries take us, but it’s been a great ride.”