The Ecological Diversity of Viruses in the Oceans

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The Ecological Diversity of Viruses in the Oceans

Tiny living things called microbes make up most of the ocean's biodiversity in the marine ecosystem / Photo by Getty Images

 

When people talk about marine life, we tend to think only of fishes, whales, sharks, coral reefs, and the like. They are some of the marine species that play an integral role in maintaining a well-balanced ocean. However, there are creatures that belong in the vast community underwater that are invisible to the naked eye and yet vital to life on Earth. They are important in the food chain and at the same time, produce almost 50% of the oxygen we breathe. 

Some of these microorganisms are viruses, bacteria, and protists. They are responsible primarily in influencing the ocean's ability to sustain life on Earth. For a creature to be considered a microorganism, it should have a size of no more than one millimeter. Microorganisms are important in the general economy of our planet since they form the basis of the food chains. At the same time, they also recycle almost all the organic matter of the Earth. 

For instance, photosynthetic bacteria and unicellular algae found in the oceans are at the base of the marine food chain. They produce the oxygen in our atmosphere. They are composed of viruses, bacteria, protists, and many tiny multicellular organisms. 

According to an article by the Expeditions Foundation, the biodiversity of these microorganisms is essential for the proliferation and diversification of life on Earth. The enormous biodiversity in our planet, which had been developed for over billions of years, is everything we have here. Without it, life would be extremely hard.

 

Scientists Have Discovered Almost 200,000 Marine Viruses

Tiny living things called microbes make up most of the ocean's biodiversity in the marine ecosystem. Most of the studies around our marine ecosystem involve sharks, coral reefs, turtles, and many more. However, much less is known about viruses that exist in the oceans. Recently, an international team has uncovered nearly 200,000 populations of marine viruses after traveling around the world. The first-ever global survey of the ecological diversity of viruses in the ocean revealed the figure exceeds the 15,000 known viruses and the approximately 2,000 genomes available from cultured viruses of microbes. 

According to an article by the Science Daily, the findings of the study can help in understanding the issues in evolution and climate change. It can show a clear picture of our planet and how it has been affected by the interaction among organisms throughout the years.

In an interview, senior author Matthew Sullivan said, "Viruses are these tiny things that you can't even see, but because they're present in such huge numbers, they really matter. We've developed a distribution map that is foundational for anyone who wants to study how viruses manipulate the ecosystem. There were many things that surprised us about our findings."

An international team has uncovered nearly 200,000 populations of marine viruses after traveling around the world / Photo by Vilainecrevette via 123RF

 

The marine viruses discovered by the scientists are found out to be organized into five distinct ecological zones throughout the entire ocean. This type of mechanism within the viruses is surprising because of the complexity of the marine regions, as well as the fluid nature of the oceans. The researchers also found an extensive number of species diversity in the Arctic and a biodiversity hotspot in the Arctic Ocean. 

The data used in the study are collected as part of the Tara Oceans effort between 2009 and 2013. The Tara project, which started in 2006, aims to conduct an innovative and unique ocean science that primarily aims to predict and better anticipate the impacts of climate change. According to author Ahmed Zayed, a graduate student at Ohio State University, they first identified whether the genetic material in the sample was viral or not. They also used several bioinformatic tools to be able to compare the samples to the known viruses. 

According to an article in Gizmodo, the study showed 195,728 populations of viruses divided into five meta-communities, which the researchers also called ecological zones. These are temperate/tropical waters with depths of zero to 150 meters; 150 to 1,000 meters; deeper than 2,000 meters; Antarctic; and the Arctic. Indeed, this research is a great reminder that as much as humans have discovered millions of things on Earth, the marine life remains full of unknowns. 

Additionally, the study revealed the significant impacts of microorganisms on our oceans. For instance, we have learned that 50% of the oxygen we breathe came from the marine ecosystem. Aside from that, viruses help in facilitating the sinking of organic carbon and biomass, which can mitigate human-induced climate change. Moreover, the findings of the study will help scientists in knowing which viruses they need to focus on. "Previous ocean ecosystem models have commonly ignored microbes, and rarely included viruses, but we now know they are a vital component to include," Sullivan said. 

 

The Role of Viruses in the Marine Environment

The role of viruses in our planet has long been ignored by scientists and researchers although they already know they existed. Fortunately, scientists are given the opportunity to explore these microorganisms through electron microscopes and finer ceramic filters. According to an article by the JRScience, viruses are the most abundant biological entities in the oceans. In fact, they can be found in the poles, tropics, in the surface, and the sediment. 

Previous studies showed that microorganisms like viruses are important in many marine biological processes. Also, viruses have a direct impact on nutrient and carbon cycling, bacterial populations, and microbial genetic composition.

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