When we think of viruses, usually the first thing that comes to mind are diseases or outbreaks such as COVID-19. However, these invisible microbes play an important role in all aspects of life, from influencing global biogeochemical cycles to having the potential to cure cancer, correct genetic defects and act as insecticides within the agricultural industry.
Viruses are essential in order to maintain an ecological balance within our ecosystems. They help control natural populations so that exponential growth is limited, creating a natural stability which leads to greater biodiversity. Phages (viruses that target bacteria), for example, are major regulators of harmful bacteria populations.
They also play a role in the cycling of nutrients in ecosystems, lysing (breaking down cells) and releasing organic matter in a process known as environmental cycling. This increases the productivity and overall function of vital ecosystems. Ocean microbes, which produce more than half of the worlds oxygen for example, rely on these nutrients to enable high rates of photosynthesis.
Viruses also play a major role in the advancement of evolution. They have the ability to transfer genetic material between organisms that can lead to genetic diversity and variation. In a process known as horizontal gene transfer, viruses can integrate their own genetic material into a host’s genome, or gain genetic information from another host. Viral infections can also create diversity through mutations within the host organism caused by mistakes during viral replication. These factors have played a significant role in the evolution of many species.
Vital advancement in medical research and human health in the areas of genetics and disease have been made possible through viruses, where research has led to a development of vaccines, antiviral drugs and diagnostic tools. A process known as gene therapy incorporates ‘viral vectors’, which have been modified to transport genetic material into cells for the treatment of genetic disorders or disease therapy. Many discoveries in the field of virology have also provided insights into broader areas of molecular biological processes, including gene expression, cell signalling and immune response.
Viruses have been used as biocontrol agents to target specific species that pose a threat to agriculture, forestry or ecosystems without interfering with beneficial species. By choosing target populations to suppress, viruses can act as environmentally friendly alternatives to pesticides in a process aligned with the principles of sustainable agricultural practice. Resistance to pesticides can be develop over time, but the development of resistance to a virus is less likely, due to their ability to evolve and adapt.
Viruses have been shown to be important drivers of evolution and play important roles within ecosystems, agriculture and medical advancement. If they were to suddenly disappear, complex and potentially unforeseen ecological consequences would likely occur. Some experts believe that life would cease to even exist without them. While viruses remain contributors of many serious diseases, understanding their roles and interactions is crucial in managing their negative impacts while taking advantage of their potential positive contributions.
You can learn more about cells, microbiology and pathogens in Oxford Open Learning’s flexible Biology iGCSE or A-level accredited distance learning courses. Get in touch with us today to find out more.