The virus fighters in our oceans BORIMAT PRAOKAEW

With viruses under the spotlight at present, we wanted to shine a light on some of the world’s greatest defenders. When you think of defenders against viruses you immediately think of the heroic work that frontline workers are doing during the coronavirus pandemic. However, that is not who we are referring to. Viruses can be created in a variety of different ways and complex ecosystems are often the breeding ground for diseases. HIV, ebola, and yellow fever were all created in the rainforest ecosystem. The rainforest is a breeding ground for viruses. Yet it takes second place to the ocean, the greatest breeding place of viruses in the known world. Who are the defenders?

Scientists estimate that the rainforest is home to several thousand viruses many of which would prove fatal to humans and while that sounds pretty scary it is nothing compared to the world’s oceans. Scientists have found over 200,000 viruses lurking in the waters but believe the numbers could reach the millions. Think about that the next time you accidentally swallow some seawater.

Yet the headline viruses that I have already mentioned have all come from the rainforests. What is stopping these countless ocean viruses from reaching us? The first thing to acknowledge is that many of those viruses pose absolutely no threat to us, so we likely swallow some strange bacteria every time we accidentally swallow seawater but that is ok. There are many that do pose a threat to us too.

Research recently published suggests that sea creatures are playing a vital role in stopping these viruses and ensuring that the ocean is a healthy ecosystem. Sea creatures use a wide variety of ways to stop viruses and when viruses are stopped they can’t spread. Oysters and other creatures use shells to block viruses. Other sea creatures are more sophisticated and use filters.

These filters are microscopic and are able to keep nourishing items but get rid of bacteria. The frontline workers are the heroes that need to be highlighted in the fight against viruses but in the seas, the equivalent of the frontline workers are the anemones, polychaete larvae, sea squirts, crabs, cockles and sponges. These strange creatures fight the viruses head-on.

Researchers wanted to better understand just how good these creatures are at fighting viruses and found they were incredible. If viruses were in the water, the sponge is who you would want on your side, this creature removes 94% of the virus within three hours. Crabs are excellent allies too as they can remove 90% of the virus. Cockles and oysters use far more blunt measures and so only reduce 43% and 12% respectively but are still good workers. 

This is incredible news but the changing planet is putting these powers at risk. The key issue is climate change. Climate change is altering the natural ecosystems in oceans around the world and creatures are not coping well. Melting sea ice is introducing new viruses to the water. As the sea ice melts the phocine distemper virus is introduced. This has been greatly damaging the arctic seal population. 

The study has highlighted how important a diverse sea ecosystem is to our own lives. If this rich ecosystem didn’t exist the viruses would thrive in the water and soon migrate to land. If that happened further pandemics could happen. If we want to fight against future pandemics we must protect ocean life. The key to doing this is to look after our oceans and to fight climate change. The time has come to put a stop to the dangerous activities that are harming our ecosystems and hurting our world.