The oceans remain shrouded in mystery and darkness despite our technological advances, and that mystery has just deepened after scientists uncovered around 200,000 viruses lying dormant in the deep.
Researchers are claiming that the vast majority of these viruses have never been seen before and only around 15,000 were previously cataloged by the scientific community.
The study, published in the journal Cell, might prove to be invaluable in understanding how our planet’s ecosystems evolve and interact with each other as well as mitigating the effects of man-made climate change.
The research was done on board a single sailboat named The Tara, whose purpose was to conduct a global survey of the ecological diversity of viruses in the oceans.
The Tara collected various samples between 2009 and 2013 from the depths of locations scattered all over the world, including both poles and tropical regions.
“Viruses are these tiny things that you can’t even see, but because they’re present in such huge numbers, they really matter,” says one of the researchers, microbiologist Matthew Sullivan from Ohio State University.
“We’ve developed a distribution map that is foundational for anyone who wants to study how viruses manipulate the ecosystem. There were many things that surprised us about our findings.”
This research has significant implications for understanding how ocean microorganisms affect the earth’s atmosphere.
“In the last 20 years or so, we’ve learned that half of the oxygen that we breathe comes from marine organisms,” Sullivan notes. “Additionally, the oceans soak up half of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
“Because of complex chemistry, increased levels of carbon dioxide at the surface acidify the oceans,” Sullivan adds. “However, if carbon dioxide instead is converted to organic carbon and biomass, then it can become particulate and sink into the deep oceans. That’s a good result for helping mitigate human-induced climate change–and we’re learning that viruses can help facilitate this sinking. Having a new map of where these viruses are located can help us understand this ocean carbon “pump” and, more broadly, biogeochemistry that impacts the planet.”