Over 190,000 Newly Discovered Viruses Are Lurking in Our Oceans, Here’s What You Should Know

If you didn’t think the ocean could get
anymore weird, wonderful and kinda freaky…have I got news for you. There are viruses in it. A lot more than we previously thought. A new study reveals there are almost 200,000
distinct viral populations in the ocean. A liter of sea water contains anywhere between
1-10 billion virus particles—most of which we don’t know anything about! Our understanding of these elusive microbial
communities has just started to come into focus in the last few decades, and this new research
is a huge step toward better understanding of our oceans. Before this study, the highest number we had
for ocean viral populations was about 15,000…but this new study pretty much blows that already
impressive number out of the water. From 2009 to 2013, researchers analyzed samples
from about 80 different sites all over the world, from sunny surfaces to thousands of
meters down into the depths. They found over 180,000 additional unique
viral populations, bringing the total to almost 200,000. And the diversity of these new populations
is seriously stunning! Ok, ok but why do we care? We may mostly think of viruses in terms of
human disease. They’re the cause of everything from the
common cold to HIV. But viruses can infect all biological organisms,
perhaps most notably…bacteria. Viruses that kill bacteria are called bacteriophages,
or phages for short. Phage therapy is being explored as a solution to antibiotic resistance and environmentally-borne pathogens. So understanding how viruses interact
with bacteria is important to human health, ‘cause they can actually be our friends
in some situations. But viruses also play essential roles outside
of our bodies. They kill marine microbes, too, and they kill
SO MANY that they actually release a really significant amount of carbon back into the
environment, playing a critical role in the food chain, all the way down to the very bottom. On the other hand, viruses also steal energy
from oceanic bacteria and therefore lessen the amount of carbon dioxide those bacteria
can take out of the atmosphere, which is obviously not ideal, so it’s a delicate balance, and
a complex relationship. Studying these new viruses could give us more
insight into how the oceans cycle organic matter…which is really important. Oceans are thought to be our biggest carbon
sink—absorbing between 30-50% of human-made carbon emissions. Exploring these new viruses means that we
could potentially manipulate viral populations to our advantage. Maybe we could increase the viral community’s
ability to move carbon dioxide from the shallow, surface parts of the ocean into the deep ocean,
sequestering it into biomatter so it doesn’t clog up our atmosphere or acidify the oceans. The new data suggests five distinct groups
of viral populations distinguished by their unique adaptations to both location and depth. Plus, something really surprising! With most organisms, diversity is clustered
around the equator. But the researchers in this study found that
about 40% of the new viral populations are in the Arctic Ocean—a part of our oceans
that’s particularly under threat from changing climate. And finally, viruses are still very mysterious. There’s lots we don’t understand about
them and the way they work, like…where did they come from? We’re not even really sure if viruses are technically alive. Viruses exhibit some qualities of ‘aliveness’,
but many are unable to survive long without a host, and all need a host to replicate soooo… neyhhh. Some scientists settle for calling viruses
‘biotic agents, or something that acts on life’—and they are the smallest and most
abundant biotic agents in the world. And even though this particular project uncovered
over 180,000 viral populations that are new to us, there are still regions of the ocean
that need to be sampled further, and there are many more probably waiting to be discovered. This vast, untapped diversity that we’re
just starting to dive into could help us gain better understanding of what exactly a virus is, how they work, and how we could use them to our advantage. If you want more on oceanic discoveries, check
out this video here. If you have any other microbial news you want us to cover, let us know down in the comments, and make sure you subscribe
to Seeker for all you viral content. Thanks for watching, and we’ll see you next time.