Nature 454, 1084-1087 (28 August 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature07268; Received 5 May 2008; Accepted 15 July 2008

Major viral impact on the functioning of benthic deep-sea ecosystems

Roberto Danovaro1, Antonio Dell'Anno1, Cinzia Corinaldesi1, Mirko Magagnini1, Rachel Noble2, Christian Tamburini3 & Markus Weinbauer4

  1. Department of Marine Science, Faculty of Science, Polytechnic University of Marche, Via Brecce Bianche, 60131 Ancona, Italy
  2. Institute of Marine Sciences, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 3431 Arendell Street, Morehead City, North Carolina 28557, USA
  3. Université de la Méditerranée, Centre d'Océanologie de Marseille, UMR 6117–CNRS, Campus de Luminy, Case 901, 163 Avenue de Luminy, 13288 Marseille, Cedex 9, France
  4. CNRS; Microbial Ecology & Biogeochemistry Group, Laboratoire d'Océanographie de Villefranche, 06234 Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, Université Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris 6, Laboratoire d'Océanographie de Villefranche, 06234 Villefranche-sur-Mer, France

Correspondence to: Roberto Danovaro1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to R.D. (Email:


Viruses are the most abundant biological organisms of the world's oceans. Viral infections are a substantial source of mortality in a range of organisms—including autotrophic and heterotrophic plankton—but their impact on the deep ocean and benthic biosphere is completely unknown. Here we report that viral production in deep-sea benthic ecosystems worldwide is extremely high, and that viral infections are responsible for the abatement of 80% of prokaryotic heterotrophic production. Virus-induced prokaryotic mortality increases with increasing water depth, and beneath a depth of 1,000 m nearly all of the prokaryotic heterotrophic production is transformed into organic detritus. The viral shunt, releasing on a global scale approx0.37–0.63 gigatonnes of carbon per year, is an essential source of labile organic detritus in the deep-sea ecosystems. This process sustains a high prokaryotic biomass and provides an important contribution to prokaryotic metabolism, allowing the system to cope with the severe organic resource limitation of deep-sea ecosystems. Our results indicate that viruses have an important role in global biogeochemical cycles, in deep-sea metabolism and the overall functioning of the largest ecosystem of our biosphere.


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