Nearly 200,000 new marine viruses were identified in the Earth’s oceans by a team of scientists who spent four years travelling the world on a research boat.
The new findings, published in the journal Cell, vastly exceeds the previous number of 15,000 marine viruses collated in earlier surveys. Relatively little is known about marine-borne viruses and researchers say that learning about them could actually help humans combat climate change.
In the report, researchers outline where these new 195,728 viral populations are spread out across the oceans -- where different viruses can have massive impact on their ecosystems.
“Because they're present in such huge numbers, they really matter," microbiologist and the paper’s senior author Matthew Sullivan said in a statement.
His team believes the survey will shed light on issues like evolution, global climate change and how viruses affect their surroundings. One of the biggest takeaways is how viruses influence the oceans’ ability to capture carbon dioxide from the air.
"In the last 20 years or so, we've learned that half of the oxygen that we breathe comes from marine organisms," Sullivan said. "Additionally, the oceans soak up half of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."
"However, if carbon dioxide instead is converted to organic carbon and biomass, then it can become particulate and sink into the deep oceans,” the Ohio State University professor explained. “That's a good result for helping mitigate human-induced climate change -- and we're learning that viruses can help facilitate this sinking.”
Viruses are unlike most forms of life. They’re generally unable to reproduce independently from other forms of life. In simple terms: they reproduce by attaching to living cells, injecting their genetic material inside and hijacking the cells’ internal machinery to make more viruses.
Sullivan added “there were many things that surprised us about our findings."
These surprises included how all the viruses they found lived in five distinct ecological zones and didn’t mix across these zones.
The survey also bucked the idea that there was less biodiversity at the poles. On the contrary, the team deemed the Arctic Ocean a biodiversity hotspot for marine viruses.
Researchers set out to complete this survey because, despite the leaps in our understanding of non-marine viruses, the amount of information on marine viruses is relatively small.
So the marine biology team embarked on a trip between the North and South Pole on a boat named Tara from 2009 to 2013. The team has spent the past several years analyzing and compiling their findings.