Like Rodney Dangerfield, viruses don’t get no respect. Viruses are often neglected in ecology, probably in part because they are small, not even visible under a microscope. But it may also be a result of the fact that there are few methods that can pin down the impacts viruses have on their environment. It can be difficult, for instance, to identify the host of a given bacteriophage, arguably the most common kind of virus.
In mBio this week, researchers from the University of Arizona, Tucson and the University of Queensland describe a new high-throughput method for linking viruses to hosts. Using a model system of two marine bacteria that represent the slow-growing, photoautotrophic genus Synechococcus (Cyanobacteria) and the fast-growing, heterotrophic genus Pseudoalteromonas (Gammaproteobacteria), as well as 11 fluorescently-tagged phages, they exposed mixtures of cells to mixtures of tagged viruses. Then they separated out tagged bacteria from untagged bacteria – separating the wheat from the chaff – and extracted DNA from the sorted samples. PCR-based assays tested the specificity of the tagged and untagged cells.