Magazine article Science News

Plankton Held Hostage by Viral Pirates: Infections Inhibit Marine Microbes' Capture of Carbon Dioxide

Magazine article Science News

Plankton Held Hostage by Viral Pirates: Infections Inhibit Marine Microbes' Capture of Carbon Dioxide

Article excerpt

When plankton on the high seas catch a cold, the whole ocean may sneeze. Viruses hijacking these microbes could be an important overlooked factor in tracing how living things trap--or in this case, fail to trap--the climate-warming gas carbon dioxide.

Plants and other organisms that photosynthesize use energy from the sun to capture C[O.sub.2] for food. The most abundant of these photosynthesizers are two genera of marine cyanobacteria: Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus.

Now, for the first time, a study has looked in detail at what happens when some ocean viruses infect these microbes. Two viruses tested in the lab hijacked cell metabolism, allowing photosynthesis to continue but shunting the captured energy to virus reproduction. The normal use of that energy, capturing C[O.sub.2], largely shuts down, David Scanlan of the University of Warwick in England and colleagues report in the June 20 Current Biology. So, scientists may overestimate by as much as 10 percent the amount of C[O.sub.2] that photosynthesis in the oceans captures.

On any given day, 1 to 60 percent of these plankton may have a viral infection, researchers have estimated. That means viruses may prevent marine organisms from capturing up to 5.39 petagrams of carbon--5.39 billion metric tons--a year. That is equivalent to 2.8 times the C[O.sub.2] captured annually by all the planet's salt marshes, coral reefs, estuaries, sea grass meadows and seaweeds put together.

Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus "are organisms that you've never heard of, but you really should have," says Adam Martiny of the University of California, Irvine, who studies these plankton. …

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