WTF Fun Fact 13730 – Ocean Viruses

Ocean viruses play a crucial role in marine ecosystems. They are the most abundant entities in the ocean, with numbers reaching into the millions per milliliter of seawater.

Despite their size, these tiny organisms have a massive impact on marine life and global processes. Ocean viruses infect marine microorganisms, including bacteria and algae, influencing nutrient cycles and energy flows in the ocean.

Marine viruses help control the population of their hosts.

By infecting and lysing (bursting) these cells, viruses release organic matter back into the water. This process, known as the viral shunt, redirects carbon and nutrients away from higher trophic levels. Instead, these nutrients remain available for microbial use, maintaining the balance of the marine food web.

The Diversity and Impact of Ocean Viruses

Ocean viruses exhibit remarkable diversity. Scientists have identified thousands of different viral species in marine environments. This diversity is crucial for the stability of marine ecosystems.

Viruses infect a wide range of hosts, from tiny bacteria to larger plankton. By doing so, they influence the abundance and diversity of these organisms.

Viruses also play a role in genetic exchange among marine organisms. Through a process called horizontal gene transfer, viruses can transfer genes between different species. This gene transfer can drive evolution and adaptation in marine microorganisms.

Additionally, some viruses carry genes that enhance the metabolic capabilities of their hosts, influencing biogeochemical cycles.

Viruses and Marine Food Webs

Ocean viruses significantly impact marine food webs. By lysing microbial cells, they release dissolved organic matter, which becomes available to other microorganisms. This process supports the microbial loop, a critical component of the ocean’s nutrient cycling. The microbial loop recycles nutrients, making them available to support primary production and the broader marine food web.

Viruses can also influence the population dynamics of marine organisms. By controlling the abundance of certain species, they can shape the composition of microbial communities. This control can have cascading effects on the entire ecosystem, influencing everything from nutrient availability to the abundance of larger marine animals.

Research and Implications

Research on ocean viruses is expanding our understanding of marine ecosystems. Scientists use advanced techniques like metagenomics to study viral diversity and function. Metagenomics allows researchers to analyze genetic material from environmental samples, providing insights into the vast array of viral genes present in the ocean.

Understanding ocean viruses has important implications for climate science.

Viruses play a role in the ocean’s carbon cycle by influencing the fate of organic carbon. By lysing cells, they help sequester carbon in the deep ocean, affecting global carbon storage. This process is crucial for understanding how the ocean mitigates climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

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Source: “Viral infection in the ocean—A journey across scales” — PLOS Biology

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