The Algae and Ocean Viruses Can Live in Harmony: New Research Explains

Ocean algae get 'coup de grace' from viruses

Apparently, the ocean viruses can live in harmony with algae. Scientists have long believed otherwise, but now they know that viruses can provide a “coup de grace” only when algae’s blooms are stressed and dying. 

Recent research will likely change how scientists see algae’s viral infections (phytoplankton), especially the influence of viruses on ecosystem processes, such as algal bloom evolution and carbon cycling. Here is what you need to know.

A Tough Relationship Between Some Viruses and Algae

The ocean viruses, known as coccolithoviruses, routinely infect and destroy E. huxleyi for more than 1,000 square miles, noticeable from space via Earth-tracking satellites. 

Biogeochemical cycling refers to significant nutrients such as oxygen, carbon, calcium, nitrogen, iron, phosphorus, and water circulating through organisms and the environment. Scientists examined the coccolithophore algae Emiliania huxleyi as a model for other algae-virus systems. The type of algae is also the main driver of this process.

The virus-algae interactions were also examined in the lab and some controlled mini-blooms in Norway’s coastal waters. Scientists focused on viral infection of a type of algae responsible for providing much oxygen and carbon cycling on Earth.

“The algae and viruses have a quasi-symbiotic type of relationship, allowing both algal cells and viruses to replicate happily for a while,”  explained Kay D. Bidle, a professor, and microbial oceanographer. 

The viruses destroy the algal cells, in the end, contributing to the global food web by producing energy and organic matter so necessary for other organisms. Infected cells, however, don’t die right away. 

Scientists found that the infected cells multiply, then bloom across dozens of miles of ocean waters and perish in a coordinated matter. Such dynamics have been routinely examined in previous research, but couldn’t explain how algal hosts and viruses encounter each other. 

Implications and Other Scenarios

The algae-virus have significant implications for the flow of carbon and the outcome of interactions. They might lead to situations where carbon dioxide is stored in the deep ocean rather than kept in the upper ocean. 

More research is needed to thoroughly understand the extent of those dynamics and their influence on ecosystems and carbon cycling in the oceans. 

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