Friday, April 4, 2008

Viruses are not always bad

A British scientist says some of the oxygen we breathe is being produced because of viruses that infect micro-organisms in the Earth's oceans.

University of Warwick Professor Nicholas Mann says about half of the world's oxygen is produced by bacteria living in tiny photosynthesizing creatures called phytoplankton.

"In major parts of the oceans, the micro-organisms responsible for providing oxygen and locking away carbon dioxide are actually single-celled bacteria called cyanobacteria," said Mann. "These organisms, which are so important for making our planet inhabitable, are attacked and infected by a range of different types of viruses."

The researchers found some of the viruses provide the genetic material that code for key components of the photosynthesis process.
"It's beginning to become to clear to us that at least a proportion of the oxygen we breathe is a by-product of bacteria suffering from a virus infection," said Mann. "Instead of being viewed solely as evolutionary bad guys, causing diseases, viruses appear to be of central importance in the planetary process. In fact they may be essential to our survival."

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