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Cyanophages infecting the oceanic cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 04 December 2003


Prochlorococcus is the numerically dominant phototroph in the tropical and subtropical oceans, accounting for half of the photosynthetic biomass in some areas1,2. Here we report the isolation of cyanophages that infect Prochlorococcus, and show that although some are host-strain-specific, others cross-infect with closely related marine Synechococcus as well as between high-light- and low-light-adapted Prochlorococcus isolates, suggesting a mechanism for horizontal gene transfer. High-light-adapted Prochlorococcus hosts yielded Podoviridae exclusively, which were extremely host-specific, whereas low-light-adapted Prochlorococcus and all strains of Synechococcus yielded primarily Myoviridae, which has a broad host range. Finally, both Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus strain-specific cyanophage titres were low (< 103 ml-1) in stratified oligotrophic waters even where total cyanobacterial abundances were high (> 105 cells ml-1). These low titres in areas of high total host cell abundance seem to be a feature of open ocean ecosystems. We hypothesize that gradients in cyanobacterial population diversity, growth rates, and/or the incidence of lysogeny underlie these trends.

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Figure 1: Host ranges of 44 clonal cyanophages exposed to marine Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus cultured isolates.
Figure 2: Cyanophage titres, measured using Prochlorococcus host strains, as a function of depth at the Bermuda Atlantic Time Series Station in the Sargasso Sea on 26 September 1999.
Figure 3: Cyanophage titres measured in Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus host cells along a surface water transect from coastal (coast, Woods Hole, Massachusetts) to open ocean (Sargasso) conducted in September 2001.


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We thank the respective Captain and crew of the R/V Oceanus and the R/V Endeavor for their help on research cruises, which were made possible by an NSF grant to chief scientists J. Moffett and B. Binder, respectively. This work was funded in part by Grants from the Seaver Foundation, NSF and DOE to S.W.C., and an NIH Genome Training Grant, an MIT Research Fellowship and a WHOI Research Fellowship to M.B.S. We thank A. F. Post for Red Sea samples, G. Tan for technical assistance, J. A. King and P. Weigele for TEM suggestions, S. Casjens and F. Rohwer for help with prophage analysis, and W. H. Wilson for providing cyanophage isolates S-PM2 and S-WHM1.

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Correspondence to Sallie W. Chisholm.

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Sullivan, M., Waterbury, J. & Chisholm, S. Cyanophages infecting the oceanic cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus. Nature 424, 1047–1051 (2003).

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