Virus - Role in Aquatic Ecosystems

Role in Aquatic Ecosystems

A teaspoon of seawater contains about one million viruses. They are essential to the regulation of saltwater and freshwater ecosystems. Most of these viruses are bacteriophages, which are harmless to plants and animals. They infect and destroy the bacteria in aquatic microbial communities, comprising the most important mechanism of recycling carbon in the marine environment. The organic molecules released from the bacterial cells by the viruses stimulates fresh bacterial and algal growth.

Microorganisms constitute more than 90% of the biomass in the sea. It is estimated that viruses kill approximately 20% of this biomass each day and that there are 15 times as many viruses in the oceans as there are bacteria and archaea. Viruses are the main agents responsible for the rapid destruction of harmful algal blooms, which often kill other marine life. The number of viruses in the oceans decreases further offshore and deeper into the water, where there are fewer host organisms.

The effects of marine viruses are far-reaching; by increasing the amount of photosynthesis in the oceans, viruses are indirectly responsible for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by approximately 3 gigatonnes of carbon per year.

Like any organism, marine mammals are susceptible to viral infections. In 1988 and 2002, thousands of harbor seals were killed in Europe by phocine distemper virus. Many other viruses, including caliciviruses, herpesviruses, adenoviruses and parvoviruses, circulate in marine mammal populations.

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