A Virus in a Vertebrate-Alga Symbiotic System?

By Charis Li

Imagine having a seaweed living inside a womb. This is the case in the fascinating symbiosis between green algae and spotted salamander, where the green algae not only exists in the egg capsule fluid but also in  the salamander tissue. 

Meanwhile, there is a family of viruses called Phycodnaviridae that attacks algae. The way viruses infect their host is based on contact rates, very much like the number of strangers you bump into is proportional to the population size . If there are more people that live in your city, then you’re more likely to pump into other strangers. Within the salamander-algae system, there’s a high concentration of green algae cells. Therefore, my mentor Senior Research Scientist John Burns and I hypothesize that phycodnaviridae might be present in this system. 

But how can we study these mutable and intangible viral particles? The answer lies in exploring the power of computational analytical tools to look at the DNA sequences of salamander, green algae, and phycodnavirus collectively. Computational biologists use high performance computing clusters called HPCs to parallelly analyze large amounts of genomic sequences. If your laptop is as powerful as a car, then an HPC is like an aircraft that can complete tasks more challenging as well as more efficiently. 

By screening for phycodnavirus in this system, we can answer questions of how the virus can play a part in the already fascinating system of energy exchange and immune responses in the salamander algae symbiotic system. 

Charis Li is a Colby College student in the 2020 Sea Change Semester Program at Bigelow Laboratory. This intensive experience provides an immersion in ocean research with an emphasis on hands-on, state-of-the-art methods and technologies.

A Virus in a Vertebrate-Alga Symbiotic System?