Thomas Pitot

Thomas Pitot

Thomas Pitot is a second year Ph.D. student at Laval University, Quebec, Canada. He focuses on biogeographic signal characterization, discovery, and ecology of giant viruses in the Last Ice Area in northern Canada. We recently talked with Thomas about his research. (Answers have been lightly edited.) 

How did you get interested in microbiome research?

When I was younger, I was fascinated by oceanography and marine ecology. I wanted to work on sharks and coral reef ecology. Intending to study this branch of science, I moved to the south of France in Marseille to do both my bachelor’s and master’s degree with a major in oceanography. There, I took classes in marine microbial ecology. I was fascinated by the importance of microbes in the functioning and shaping of our entire system. That is how I discovered my passion for microbiology, particularly virology.

Briefly describe your project as if you were talking to your grandmother. What excites you about your current research project? 

There is this very special area at the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada. There, the sea-ice is thicker and older than anywhere else in the Arctic Ocean. We give this place a special name. We call it the “Last Ice Area”. Scientists suggest that the sea ice there will last longer and will be the last remaining iced area in the rest of the Arctic Ocean. This ice might play a role in keeping the nearby land cooler and safeguarding the ice-depending ecosystems along the coast.

What excites you about your current research project?

I am especially interested in these ecosystems and notably, polar lakes. There are very few to no fish in polar lakes, so microbes are the main players in these waters. To survive and thrive, these microbes need to interact all together. Viruses are part of these interactions and they play vital roles. They control local populations, recycle nutrients, induce genetic diversity etc. My project consists of identifying, characterizing, and trying to understand the virology of these lakes, focusing on a very specific group of viruses, the giant viruses. Giant viruses are extraordinary due to their unusually large size, often comparable to (or even larger than!) some bacteria. They challenge the traditional definition of a virus. These viruses also possess complex genomes, with an array of genes that enable them to perform functions typically associated with cellular organisms, blurring the line between viruses and cellular life.

How does your work contribute to researchers’ understanding of the microbiome?

Virology has been part of microbiome research for quite a long time. However, only few studies have been conducted on ice-dependent lakes virology and these primarily relied on conventional virome analysis that adheres to a traditional interpretation of the “viral size fraction”. Therefore, the current published studies that focus on a size fraction of less than 220 nm have largely disregarded the viral phylum known as Nucleocytovircota or “giant viruses”. Giant viruses infect eukaryotes, and it is essential to understand these interactions in order to better consider and understand microbiome interactions and functioning.

What song do you currently have on repeat?

Barbara Pravi by Lève toi.

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