Scientists on a Sailboat Just Found Nearly 200,000 Viruses Hiding in Earth's Oceans

Tropical islands and atolls in Maldives from aerial view.
(Image credit: Ingus Kruklitis/Shutterstock)

Scientists aboard a single sailboat have identified nearly 200,000 marine virus species, increasing the number of known marine viruses from the 15,000 documented in previous surveys.

The new survey has revealed new details about the distribution of marine viruses across the ocean ecosystem.

Viruses exist at the fringes of life. They don't have cells or perform normal biological processes or independently reproduce. Instead, they're more or less bags of genetic material that bump into living cells and inject those cells with the genetic instructions to produce more viruses. [6 New Findings about Viruses]

But whether or not viruses count as life, there’s no denying they play an important role in the ecosystems where they’re found.

"Because they're present in such huge numbers, they really matter," Matthew Sullivan, a microbiologist at The Ohio State University and senior author on a paper published in Cell today (April 25) describing the findings, said in a statement.

Despite that, marine biologists knew very little about the viruses dwelling in our oceans. To remedy that, the scientists embarked on a globe-spanning viral hunt between 2009 and 2013, circumnavigating both poles aboard a boat named Tara. The researchers were surprised to find the sloshing ocean currents did not mix viral species very well. Instead, viruses divided roughly into five regional categories. The researchers also found many viruses in the Arctic, where little had been known about any local viruses.

The new research will help biologists understand how viruses affect the marine ecosystem. Among other things, the authors noted, viruses may change how the ocean pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and into the water, the researchers said Viruses, like any organic thing, are made in large part from carbon. [The 9 Deadliest Viruses on Earth]

"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."

Understanding what viruses are present, and where, could help flesh out that story.

Originally published on Live Science.

Rafi Letzter
Staff Writer
Rafi joined Live Science in 2017. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of journalism. You can find his past science reporting at Inverse, Business Insider and Popular Science, and his past photojournalism on the Flash90 wire service and in the pages of The Courier Post of southern New Jersey.