Re-examination of the relationship between marine virus and microbial cell abundances

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Marine viruses are critical drivers of ocean biogeochemistry, and their abundances vary spatiotemporally in the global oceans, with upper estimates exceeding 108 per ml. Over many years, a consensus has emerged that virus abundances are typically tenfold higher than microbial cell abundances. However, the true explanatory power of a linear relationship and its robustness across diverse ocean environments is unclear. Here, we compile 5,508 microbial cell and virus abundance estimates from 22 distinct marine surveys and find substantial variation in the virus-to-microbial cell ratio, in which a 10:1 model has either limited or no explanatory power. Instead, virus abundances are better described as nonlinear, power-law functions of microbial cell abundances. The fitted scaling exponents are typically less than 1, implying that the virus-to-microbial cell ratio decreases with microbial cell density, rather than remaining fixed. The observed scaling also implies that viral effect sizes derived from ‘representative’ abundances require substantial refinement to be extrapolated to regional or global scales.

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Figure 1: Global distribution and information regarding sample sites.
Figure 2: Variation in virus and microbial abundances and the VMR.
Figure 3: Virus abundance is poorly fit by a model of a tenfold increase relative to microbial abundance.
Figure 4: Virus–microbial relationships given the variable slope and intercept mixed-effects model.
Figure 5: Study-specific 95% confidence intervals of power-law exponents for relationships between virus and microbial abundances in the surface.

Change history

  • 03 October 2017

    The original publication of this Article included analysis of virus and microbial cell abundances and virus-to-microbial cell ratios. Data in the Article came from 25 studies intended to be exclusively from marine sites. However, 3 of the studies included in the original unified dataset were erroneously classified as marine sites during compilation. The records with mis-recorded longitude and latitude values were, in fact, taken from inland, freshwater sources. The three inland, freshwater datasets are ELA, TROUT and SWAT. The data from these three studies represent 163 of the 5,671 records in the original publication. In the updated version of the Article, all analyses have been recalculated using the same statistical analysis pipeline released via GitHub as part of the original publication. Removal of the three studies reduces the unified dataset to 5,508 records. Analyses involving all grouped datasets have been updated with changes noted in each figure. All key results remain qualitatively unchanged. All data and scripts used in this correction have been made available as a new, updated GitHub release to reflect the updated dataset and figures.


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This work was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) grants OCE-1233760 (to J.S.W.) and OCE-1061352 (to A.B. and S.W.W.), a Career Award at the Scientific Interface from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (to J.S.W.) and a Simons Foundation SCOPE grant (to J.S.W.). This work was conducted as part of the Ocean Viral Dynamics Working Group at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, sponsored by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Author information

C.H.W. developed the code and implemented all scripts, analysed data, performed statistical analysis and contributed to writing the manuscript. D.S. developed and reviewed the code, analysed data, performed statistical analysis and provided feedback on the manuscript. A.B., J.F., J.T.L., M.M., C.A.S., C.S., W.H.W. and K.E.W. contributed to the design and implementation of the study, the assessment and collection of data sets, and provided feedback on the manuscript. C.P.D.B. and J.F.F. contributed to the assessment and collection of data sets and provided feedback on the manuscript. S.W.W. co-led the design of the study, led the data collection and assessment component, and contributed to writing the manuscript. J.S.W. co-led the design of the study, led the code and statistical analysis component, and wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to Steven W. Wilhelm or Joshua S. Weitz.

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Containing Supplementary Text, Tables 1–6, Figures 1–6 and References (PDF 1140 kb)

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Supplementary Dataset (XLS 646 kb)

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Wigington, C., Sonderegger, D., Brussaard, C. et al. Re-examination of the relationship between marine virus and microbial cell abundances. Nat Microbiol 1, 15024 (2016) doi:10.1038/nmicrobiol.2015.24

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