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Viral mortality of marine bacteria and cyanobacteria


DESPITE the importance of cyanobacteria in global primary productivity1and of heterotrophic bacteria in the consumption of organic matter in the sea2, the causes of their mortality, particularly the cyanobacteria, are poorly understood. It is usually assumed that mortality is due to protozoan grazing3,4 rather than to viral infection, probably because abundances of phage and host in nature are presumed to be low5. Previously, either very few marine bacteriophages have been found by plaque assays6–9, or viruses have been simply observed10–12or counted13,14 by transmission electron microscopy, with the assumption that 'phage-looking' forms are locally active bacteriophages. Here we report not only high viral abundance in the ocean but also counts of bacteria and cyanobacteria in the final irreversible stage of lytic infection. The latter counts are necessary to evaluate mortality, because the sources, hosts, viability and ages of observed free viruses are unknown; even finding viruses attached to cells does not prove successful infection. Up to 7% of the heterotrophic bacteria and 5% of the cyanobacteria from diverse marine locations contained mature phage; interpretation via culture data indicates that up to 70% of the prokaryotes could be infected. These data demonstrate the existence of a significant new pathway of carbon and nitrogen cycling in marine food webs and have further implications for gene transfer between marine organisms.

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Proctor, L., Fuhrman, J. Viral mortality of marine bacteria and cyanobacteria. Nature 343, 60–62 (1990).

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