Professor Delivers Keynote at International Conference

UNC Charlotte College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) Assistant Bioinformatics professor Dr. Rick White delivered the opening keynote address at the Soil Viral Workshop (SVW) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

According to its event description, the first-ever SVW, hosted by Aarhus University, provided a dedicated forum to engage soil viral ecologists with varying backgrounds, while establishing soil viral ecology as a new research area.

Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on the planet. However, their role and impact remain largely unexplored, despite what research has proven about viruses in other ecosystems which suggests they are critical in promoting biodiversity and affect nutrient cycling.

Soil viral ecology is an emerging research topic. Consequently, soil viral ecologists currently work in an uncoordinated manner in small, isolated groups dispersed throughout the world without a single forum to share and exchange knowledge and ideas.

White’s talk on Viral Microscopy measurements, titled, “Illuminating the unseen majority beneath our feet – enumeration of the global soil virome using intelligent algorithms,” highlights his work using computation to obtain better estimates of viral-like particles (VLPs) present in soil – an area far less studied or understood than marine ecosystems.

“The topsoil on our planet is degrading, “ he said. “Our topsoil could be fully degraded within 60 years. Our computer vision software, combined with direct virion sequencing, could illuminate the unseen viral majority in soils in a cost-effective, user-friendly way.”

Studying viruses within soils can help clarify how soil metabolism is changing due to degrading, acidification, erosion and other environmental factors. As well as the role viruses play within soil ecosystems.

“Our expectation is to establish a scientific network that will measure, analyze, interpret, and integrate across the globe to fully understand the soil viral role on Earth’s biogeochemical cycles as well as their ecosystem services,” White said.

Although he tweeted enthusiastically about a Viking Ship ride and Rye Seed Bread (i.e., Rugbrød), White said the highlight of his trip to Copenhagen was the opportunity to engage with, “an international group of leading soil scientists, soil virologists, genomic scientists, and soil bioinformaticians about the ground-breeaking work being done at UNC Charlotte.”

He added, “It is an honor for my lab group’s work to be recognized within the field of soil viruses.”