Pole-to-pole sampling of marine life leads researchers to conclude the world’s oceans could hold the key to many scientific and biotechnological advancements

Virologists and microbiologists will be intrigued to learn that scientists at Ohio State University (OSU) have identified nearly 200,000 previously unknown viruses living deep in the oceans. The catalog of 195,728 viruses could serve as a “road map” to a better understanding of ecosystems within the world’s oceans and the role they play in maintaining the health of the planet.

Though the research was not specifically directed at developing useful insights for clinical care, it could one day lead to new diagnostic assays or therapies. For clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups, this study demonstrates how understanding and knowledge about viruses and other organisms continue to grow.

The researches published their findings in the journal Cell

Viruses Are Tiny but Important

The OSU researchers led a 24-member team’s effort to expand the catalog of ocean viruses and draw the first global map of viral diversity.

“Viruses tend to steal genes and do really interesting things with them. So, someone who’s savvy in biotechnology can mine this data set to find new enzymes that can help us in our everyday lives, whether that’s cosmetic products or creating a new thermocycler or some sort of engineering process,” Matthew Sullivan, PhD, a microbiologist at OSU and one of the study’s authors, told CNN.

“Viruses are these tiny things that you can’t even see, but because they’re present in such huge numbers, they really matter,” Matthew Sullivan, PhD, a microbiologist at Ohio State University and one of the study’s authors, said in a new release. “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.” These new discoveries could someday form the basis for new medical laboratory tests and therapeutic drugs. (Photo copyright: Ohio State University.)

According to the news release, “The samples were collected during the unprecedented three-year Tara Oceans Expedition, in which a team of more than 200 experts took to the sea to catalog and better understand the unseen inhabitants of the ocean, from tiny animals to viruses and bacteria.”

“What was really exciting was now being able to study these viruses at two important levels—the population level and by looking at genetic variation within each population, which tells us about evolution,” Ann Gregory, PhD, co-lead author of the study, said in an OSU news release. “We have expanded the number of known viral populations more than tenfold and this new map will help us understand the impact of ocean viruses on a global level,” she added.

A news release from Tara Ocean Foundation notes that prior ocean surveys had identified 16,000 viral species.

Massive Quest for Knowledge

The OSU scientists studied ocean life from varying ocean depths, stretching from pole to pole, using samples collected during the Tara Oceans expeditions, which took place from 2009-2013. The Tara Ocean Foundation has backed 11 scientific expeditions and collected more than 60,000 samples that have been the basis for more than 70 scientific publications.

The team of researchers split the viruses into five ecological zones: all depths of the Arctic and Antarctic and three distinct depths of the Temperate and Tropical regions, noted the OSU study.

By developing new methods to sequence viruses in planktonic populations, the OSU research team, according to the Tara Ocean press release, was able to understand genetic variations:

  • Between individuals within each population;
  • Between populations within each viral community; and
  • Between communities across several environments of the global oceans, as well as study the driving forces behind all these variations.

In its news release, Tara Ocean Foundation pointed out one surprise was the “cradle of viral diversity” found in the Arctic Ocean, which had not been part of earlier studies of ocean life.

“This research has significant implications for understanding how ocean micro-organisms affect the atmosphere,” Sullivan said in the Cell Press news release, which goes on to note that, “The investigators say that having a more complete picture of marine viral distribution and abundance will help them to determine which viruses they should be focusing on for further studies.”

“Previous ocean ecosystem models have commonly ignored microbes, and rarely included viruses, but we now know they are a vital component to include,” said Sullivan.

At this time, the OSU study offers little that clinical laboratories can use other than a deeper awareness of how viruses impact our world and environment. However, further study of the ocean depths may yield surprises that also expand medical knowledge and lead to new therapies and diagnostic tests.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

The World’s Oceans Have Nearly 200,000 Viral Species–about 12 Times More than Previously Known

Researchers Detail Marine Viruses from Pole to Pole

Marine DNA Viral Macro- and Micro-Diversity from Pole to Pole

The Arctic Ocean, Cradle of Viral Biodiversity

Pole-to-Pole Study of Ocean Life Identifies 200,000 Marine Viruses