In one corner is the Earth’s most abundant organism: SAR11, an ocean-living bacterium that survives where most other cells would die and plays a major role in the planet’s carbon cycle. It had been theorized that SAR11 was so small and widespread that it must be invulnerable to attack.
In the other corner, and so strange looking that scientists previously didn’t even recognize what they were, are “Pelagiphages,” viruses now known to infect SAR11 and routinely kill millions of these cells every second.
How this fight turns out is of more than casual interest, because SAR11 has a huge effect on the amount of carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere, and the overall biology of the oceans.
“There’s a war going on in our oceans, a huge war, and we never even saw it,” says Stephen Giovannoni, a professor of microbiology at Oregon State University. “This is an important piece of the puzzle in how carbon is stored or released in the sea.” The analysis shows that the new viruses—like their hosts—are the most abundant on record.
The paper in Nature describes four previously unknown viruses that infect SAR11. To prove the viruses were as abundant as their hosts, Giovannoni and colleagues teamed up with researchers at the University of Arizona’s Tucson Marine Phage Research Lab, led by Matthew Sullivan, who had developed accurate methods for measuring viral diversity in nature.
The analysis shows that the new viruses—like their hosts—are the most abundant on record. Giovannoni’s group discovered the Pelagiphage viral families by using “old-fashioned” research methods, growing the cells and viruses in a laboratory, instead of the tools of modern genomics, and found the new type of virus.
“Because they are so new, these viruses were virtually unrecognizable to us based on their DNA,” Giovannoni says. “The viruses themselves, of course, appear to be just as abundant as SAR11.”
Sullivan explains the method for discovering viruses in the oceans based on their genomes his group developed over four years is at least 1,000 times more accurate than previous methods.
Their work resulted in the Pacific Ocean Virus dataset. This dataset, Sullivan explains, is the viral equivalent of the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition by former human genome researcher J. Craig Venter, who sailed across the world’s oceans sampling, sequencing, and analyzing the DNA of the microorganisms living in these waters. The new findings on SAR11 disprove the theory that the bacteria are immune to viral predation, Giovannoni and his co-authors say.
“In general, every living cell is vulnerable to viral infection,” says Giovannoni, who first discovered SAR11 in 1990. “What has been so puzzling about SAR11 was its sheer abundance, there was simply so much of it that some scientists believed it must not get attacked by viruses.” What the new research shows, Giovannoni says, is that SAR11 is competitive, good at scavenging organic carbon, and effective at changing quickly to avoid infection. Because of this, it thrives and persists in abundance even though the new viruses are constantly killing it.