Research Reveals Patterns in Viruses that Attack Cyanobacteria


Many organisms have unique distributions that vary across the earth’s surface, following lines of latitude, elevation gradients, and habitat types. A plant or animal’s distribution pattern, or biogeography, can help scientists understand what environmental factors allow the organism to flourish in certain areas, while failing to take hold in others.

In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Microbiology, a team of researchers—including Rachel Parsons, the Oceanic Microbial Observatory Laboratory Manager at BIOS—found that even marine viruses have a distinct biogeography. Parsons and her colleagues from Roger Williams University (RWU) and the University of California, Irvine investigated a unique group of marine viruses called “cyanophages” that infect the Synechococcus cyanobacteria. These cyanobacteria play an important role in the global marine food web and are abundant throughout the global ocean.

By comparing cyanophages in water samples from different geographic locations, lead author Dr. Marcia Marston (RWU) and the research team found that communities of marine cyanophages in Bermuda’s waters were significantly different than those in North American waters, indicating a distinct spatial biogeography. Additionally, by looking at six years of samples from a single location they found annual seasonal variations, indicating that cyanophages also have a seasonal biogeography.

According to Parsons, “This research is exciting because it shows that Bermuda’s geographic isolation has resulted in a different community, or ‘taxa,’ of cyanophages even in the fluidity of an oceanic environment.” These results lead scientists to consider a suite of additional questions, such as:

Has this differentiation occurred because of changes to the cyanobacteria involved?
Have the cyanobacteria, and in turn the cyanophages, adapted to the specific environment associated with Bermuda?
Could it be that Bermuda has a more pristine environment or that this adaptation is suited to the climate on Bermuda, especially the availability of sunlight?

“More work is needed to answer all of these questions but, since cyanobacteria are involved in oxygen production through photosynthesis, the implications are globally important,” says Parsons.