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Virus Hunters: The Experiment

How does it work?

  1. We receive a water sample
  2. We find the viruses and prepare them for the microscope
  3. We look at the viruses and collect images
  4. Data analysis
  5. Publish the data!

Why we do this

When you think about life in a pond or lake, it's probably ducks or fish that spring to mind. But they are massively outnumbered by the invisible bacteria and viruses. Few people realise the mind-blowing abundance of viruses in our environment. Every day around 800 million land on every square meter of the earth, a millilitre of seawater can contain tens of millions of them, the local pond is basically viral soup.

We want to raise public awareness of viruses – specifically bacteriophage, just how common they are and how important they are both as potential disease treatments and as vectors for spreading antibiotic resistance and disease causing genes.

This project is unique because members of the public can provide samples AND help with data analysis. The results – aside from just keeping an eye out for anything unusual (we’ve found phage normally associated with hot springs and several species of giant virus) - will be used to build up a database of morphology by post code & water type to look for any correlations and if we ever got enough funding, genetic information too.

How to take part

Submitting water

Because of limited funding, we can currently only take water samples from schools in our area. Hopefully, if the pilot project is successful, we will be able to get more funding and take water samples from the general public.

Data analysis

If we can't take your samples, we still need your help! We get enormous amounts of data per sample, way too much to analyse on our own. Please help us to analyse it on Zooniverse. At this time we are looking for virus size and virus type. To give it a try, please go to Virus Hunters on Zooniverse and set up an account.

What will you do with the results?

Once we have enough samples analysed from different water sources, we will use the Zooniverse classifications to see if there are differences in virus types from different water sources. We will publish the results in a scientific journal. If you classify enough particles on Zooniverse, your name could be in our paper!

We will also use the classifications to set up further Zooniverse experiments with these images, such as measuring the virus particle sizes. At this stage, when we look at individual virus particles, there is a good chance we could discover entirely new viruses!

If we get enough funding to do genetic sequencing, we can see if different virus particles match different genes.

Why are you looking for new viruses?

Viruses that infect bacteria may help treat bacterial infections

Some diseases caused by bacteria can no longer be treated with antibiotics, because the bacteria are resistant. This is a dangerous situation as this antibiotic resistance can spread to other species of bacteria. In the future, it may be that bacterial infections will be a major cause of death. We need to find new ways of treating bacterial infections, and viruses that infect bacteria may be one of them.

Viruses may give an indication of biodiversity in the water

Biodiversity is an important indicator of the health of an ecosystem. With climate change, the temperature of the water may change and that may have effects on the life in the water. Some organisms are hard to grow and monitor in the lab, and virus species may provide an indicator of the presence of these organisms.