If given the choice to magically wave a wand and cause all viruses to disappear, most people would probably jump at that opportunity, especially now. Yet this would be a deadly mistake – deadlier, in fact, than any virus could ever be.
“If all viruses suddenly disappeared, the world would be a wonderful place for about a day and a half, and then we’d all die – that’s the bottom line,” says Tony Goldberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “All the essential things they do in the world far outweigh the bad things.”
The vast majority of viruses are not pathogenic to humans, and many play integral roles in propping up ecosystems. Others maintain the health of individual organisms – everything from fungi and plants to insects and humans.
These viruses kill about 20% of all oceanic microbes, and about 50% of all oceanic bacteria, each day. By culling microbes, viruses ensure that oxygen-producing plankton have enough nutrients to undertake high rates of photosynthesis, ultimately sustaining much of life on Earth.
Researchers likewise think that viruses are integral for maintaining healthy microbiomes in the bodies of humans and other animals. “These things are not well understood, but we’re finding more and more examples of this close interaction of viruses being a critical part of ecosystems, whether it’s our human ecosystem or the environment,” [environmental virologist Curtis] Suttle says.