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Mya Breitbart: Decoding Marine Mysteries With “The Virus Hunter”

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Mya Breitbart

Mya Breitbart, Professor of Biological Oceanography, never forgets how pivotal the hands-on experience she got through Girl Scout outings was to launching her career,  from watching sea turtle eggs hatch to working on her first research cruise on the Great Lakes.

When she is not in her lab at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science in Tampa, she is reaching out to girls who may never have imagined a career in science, with projects that are captivating, creative, and loads of fun.

“We actually took a group out to one of the [Girl Scout] camps, and we had them just turn over logs and collect all the insects that they could find; and we processed these insects to see if we could find any viruses in them,” said Breitbart. They discovered and got to name a cockroach virus, which was pretty fun.”

“I feel like In a lot of ways being a scientist is like being a kid. You are exploring that curiosity,” said Breitbart. 

She wasn’t initially keen on what has turned out to be her research focus of microbiology.

But she started working with an undergraduate adviser at Florida Institute of Technology, who was literally going to the ends of the earth to search for new medicines and chemical compounds hidden in tiny marine organisms.

“I thought it was so amazing we could grow these bacteria that came from Antarctic sponges found under the ice, and they would have antibiotics we had never seen before. The idea that all these things are out there, waiting to be discovered; that really helped me get into the microbiology,” said Breitbart.

The summer after her sophomore year she completed a Research Experience for Undergraduates at Scripps Institute in California. That’s where she was introduced to marine viruses, and the endless research possibilities of viral ecology.

“Viruses are all around us, in every environment, whether it is air, or surfaces, or seawater, or sewage. Where do you start?  I was fascinated by the fact that in a drop of seawater you could have a million viruses. And we have no idea what most of them are.  That was true when I started in this, and it is still true now,” she said.

While she is chipping away at some of those unknowns, viruses don’t make it easy. Many viruses don’t have the building blocks that are already well understood in other organisms. Add to that the need for electron microscopes to magnify them hundreds of thousands of times to be able to look at them.

Because no single test exists to identify viruses,  traditional laboratory processing can be  time-consuming and ineffective, for example, when dealing with the emergency of a disease outbreak.

“Viruses are really tricky because they don’t share any genes in common. Viruses can be tons of different shapes and sizes, some of them have DNA genomes, some of them have RNA genomes; they use their hosts to replicate. So they don’t necessarily have all the genes to do what they need to do. They are relying on hosts. And so they are really hard to study,” she said.

Breitbart uses a method of identifying some of these mystery viruses through a process known as metagenomics, sequencing genomes for a whole community instead of just one organism. It’s one of the reasons she was recognized by Popular Science Magazine in  2013 as one of its “Brilliant 10”. She says the research enables the proactive identification of viruses with disease potential, before they  affect the health of humans, plants, or animals,  that can result in disease or economic losses.

“And so if you think about sequencing the genome of something as putting together a jigsaw puzzle; in this case we are taking all of the genomes out of all of the viruses in the ocean, or all of the pieces out of thousands of jigsaw puzzles and kind of like dumping them on the table at the same time, and trying to piece back together those genomes, to get an idea of what’s out there,” she said.  

Breitbart says it has never been more important for scientists to be able to communicate the importance of their research. For her, part of that message is, the health of humans is really dependent on the health of the ecosystem. For example, sequencing and understanding viruses in seawater in areas where people recreate can help determine if those waters are safe.  And understanding viruses  that infect bacteria is also crucial, because  the oceans’ bacteria are important photosynthesizers; critical to carbon cycling and combating climate change. 

In the field of viral metagenomics, the identity and impact of viruses can be surprising. After what she described as her less than enthusiastic switch from studying viruses in seawater to studying viruses in human feces, while she was working on her doctorate,  Breitbart and her colleagues were surprised  to discover that the most common virus in human waste was actually a plant virus; one that’s common in bell peppers and hot peppers.

 “We really thought we were going to find a lot of human viruses. We need to understand what is there, to make linkages with health or with disease. And this turned into something that is still being researched in my lab. This plant virus turns out to be an excellent indicator of human waste. So we can use it for tracking fecal pollution; in the oceans, or in lakes or in drinking water supplies, or shellfish or just about anything; like if you want to explain the contaminated  [Romaine] lettuce right now. “

Along with her own team’s projects, other scientists seek out her lab’s expertise as “The Virus Hunters”. When zoo veterinarians in Kansas City, Missouri  lost four sea lions to an unknown respiratory illness, they turned to Breitbart’s lab, that identified the anellovirus in the animals that died.  But there is more to uncover. There are ethics considerations when dealing with animals that are threatened or endangered. They cannot do tests on live animals, but have increased their knowledge and database when other scientists send tissue samples from animals that have stranded and died.

“We and other groups have found a type of virus in a lot of seal and sea lion species. It really did help us discover something new that is out there, but we don’t have definitive links to disease yet,” she said

Breitbart also seeks out viruses in insects, spiders, and plants.

“I’ve always been interested in sea grasses, they are among the  most important ecosystems on earth, economically, and for maintaining shorelines, and as food sources for manatees and turtles. We didn’t know about their viruses, so we just went into healthy sea grasses to look for viruses. We found a new virus; but don’t know what, if any effect it has on seagrass. What is exciting about it is the virus we found is related to viruses that infect land grasses. We should be able to get at the evolutionary history of these viruses,” she said.

 

INSPIRING A NEW GENERATION

Breitbart says she sees a lot of young people counting  themselves out of science, perhaps because they are not great at math, or because someone once made a stinging comment that convinced  them they were not good enough.

As the daughter of a mom who was a geneticist and a dad who was a food chemist, Breitbart spent more time than the average kid visiting science museums and aquariums. She now helps create similar opportunities and confidence for a new generation.

“A lot of times these external influences discourage them from pursuing careers, or just don’t even let them know that opportunities are available, “ she said.

She says it is still the case that if you ask a group of kids to draw a picture of a scientist , they will come up with an old guy in a lab coat with glasses and pocket protector.

“So I’m really committed to having, especially girls know it’s cool to be interested in science--not nerdy or ‘a boy thing’.”

 And, like the Girl Scout Troop helping identify that cockroach virus, they can see that it’s possible to make their own discoveries.

Breitbart’s lab is now made up of ten researchers, and currently all are women. Their efforts in the laboratory go beyond just the routine work of testing samples. They do the research, collect the data, analyze and interpret it, and then decide what the next steps are. She says doing outreach with a group of ten women, all working on  different and interesting science projects sends a powerful message when talking to girls about their futures.

Sometimes she also needs to “stick up for” the misunderstood characteristics of the viruses she studies. Especially, she said, with the current “hand sanitizer generation,” under the impression that  all viruses are harmful. At an annual science festival in St. Petersburg that attracts 20,000 kids and parents, she teaches the public about good viruses, such as those that can be used instead of antibiotics to help target bacterial pathogens that can make people sick. And she says that has really resonated with a lot of the kids.

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Marsha Walton