Between a Rock and a Soft Place: The Role of Viruses in Lithification of Modern Microbial Mats

Trends Microbiol. 2021 Mar;29(3):204-213. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2020.06.004. Epub 2020 Jul 9.


Stromatolites are geobiological systems formed by complex microbial communities, and fossilized stromatolites provide a record of some of the oldest life on Earth. Microbial mats are precursors of extant stromatolites; however, the mechanisms of transition from mat to stromatolite are controversial and are still not well understood. To fully recognize the profound impact that these ecosystems have had on the evolution of the biosphere requires an understanding of modern lithification mechanisms and how they relate to the geological record. We propose here viral mechanisms in carbonate precipitation, leading to stromatolite formation, whereby viruses directly or indirectly impact microbial metabolisms that govern the transition from microbial mat to stromatolite. Finding a tangible link between host-virus interactions and changes in biogeochemical processes will provide tools to interpret mineral biosignatures through geologic time, including those on Earth and beyond.

Keywords: CRISPR; bacteriophage; biosignatures; early Earth; exopolymeric substances (EPS); lytic/lysogenic cycle; microbial mat; microbialites; stromatolite; viral lifestyle; viruses; virus–host interactions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / classification
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Bacteria / virology*
  • Geologic Sediments / analysis
  • Geologic Sediments / microbiology*
  • Host-Parasite Interactions
  • Virus Physiological Phenomena
  • Viruses / genetics