Nine years ago I participated in a triathlon on Cayuga Lake. At the time, I was a pretty fast swimmer (not anymore I fear…) and came in 4th overall in the swim leg amongst >500 competitors. During the swim in the lake, aside from trying to swim in a straight line, I incidentally ingested quite a bit of lake water… and have oft noted that, to me, it smells a lot like waterfowl.
Fast forward five years, and we received seed funding to perform a time series (meaning routine monthly sampling, following the same protocol every month) of the lake microbiota. I’d previously participated in time series in several habitats. In grad school in southern California, I’d participated in the San Pedro Ocean Time Series for about 3.5 years. Early in my Cornell tenure, a former grad student, Julie Brown, had performed a time series in Green and Round Lakes, near Syracuse. And in 2011, I’d worked with undergraduates to perform a time series over the summer at the Shoals Marine Lab. The idea behind all of these were to see what changes over time, and to correlate these with environmental conditions, which would then provide insight into factors controlling microbial communities.
Starting in September 2014, my then-technician Jason Button would trek out to three nearby lakes (Cayuga, Owasco and Seneca – each unique in character) and collect water samples, which we’d then filter. We also measured a suite of environmental conditions against which we could analyze these data. With only one exception (in Feb 2015, when ice covered two of the three lakes), we sampled plankton.
What we found in analyzing their microbiota (we thought the interesting story would be in bacteria or other unicellular organisms) was that there is a suite of really interesting viruses inhabiting the lakes. Using the information gained from sequencing RNAs from the lake, we found viruses that we thought might be infecting small animals that eat algae in the lakes, along with a virus that looked like something that infects pondweed. We pursued this further by quantifying these viruses over time in the lake samples, and showed that some of the viruses are there continuously throughout the year, while others come and go with the seasons – and even one which looks like it gets washed into the lakes from the surrounding watershed.
This cool study shows that these viruses – for which we had so little information previously – are in fact dynamic and potentially important parts of the Finger Lakes. But don’t worry – I didn’t get sick from my triathlon in 2009 – and nor will you. These viruses will only infect small plankton!
You can read more about this work here: