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article imageOp-Ed: Huge numbers of new marine DNA viruses discovered

By Paul Wallis     Apr 28, 2019 in Science
Columbus - Um…yeah, sure. When it’s a major study, always fudge the numbers if you can. Just add 2 million new viruses according to the International Business Times. Or maybe there’s about 200,000, according to
A new marine study recently conducted does indicate vastly more marine viruses across multiple environments, however ineptly published the results. The new viruses, however many there are, constitute a huge jolt for basic marine ecology.
To find out what exactly was discovered, I had to check out the source paper, published on The paper’s authors cite 195,729 viral populations that they’ve actually identified. You can assume further studies will add to this number over time. (The study is attributed to Ohio State University according to with mentions of related researches elsewhere. You’d think the actual study attributions would be clearer.)
What’s so significant about so many marine viruses?
Marine viruses are a key dynamic in the food chain, and ocean ecology generally. There are a few issues here:
1. So many more viruses indicates a vast range of possible pathologies, far bigger than the “15,000” number of previously identified species could possibly cover.
2. Marine pathogens affect the entire ocean food chain. That means anything from an oceanic plague to specific hits on particular marine species.
3. These huge numbers (there are literally millions of viruses in any drop of sea water) mean viral population growth has been extremely successful. It also means they’ve succeeded in exploiting vast ranges of ecological niches.
4. To produce that many viruses means a vast amount of protein and genetic materials are being processed at all levels. That’s highly significant, because it means marine viral pathology is a huge factor in current ocean ecologies.
5. Viruses infect microbes as well as higher animals. The entire oceanic ecology is therefore theoretically subject to added stresses from these viruses at all levels.
6. Viruses mutate. There probably is an identifiable range of “ancestry” for the viruses, but what about the future? What if declining marine populations induce viruses to mutate to survive? That could get nasty.
No, the world’s not ending just quite yet
Viruses are either dormant or active. Viral infections are based on viruses having access to genetic materials, DNA in the case of these viruses. Viruses tend to specialize, meaning only a few are potentially dangerous to any specific host.
So these huge numbers may not pose any sort of imminent threat. What is clear is that these viral populations have been in place for quite a while, to deliver these population figures. Migratory hosts, however, could spread mutant viruses, another imponderable.
There’s no clear indication that any major viral fish kills or other easily visible ecological impacts are directly attributable to viruses. They are, however, natural suspects in any sudden population crash by definition, and viruses do kill fish. Big fish kills, if not caused by human incompetence, are usually based on pathogens of some kind.
(Note marine virus risks in aquaculture are a study in themselves and considered a potentially real threat.)
So maybe the viruses are just being viruses, not all that dangerous. Having said which – The influenza pandemic after World War 1 was a viral infection. It emerged as a human pathogen from some obviously pre-existing viral population. That strain of virus basically diluted itself, but influenza remains a high-risk infection for humans.
The marine viruses may or may not produce a high-risk class of pathogen which can attack big marine populations. The more likely scenario is localized outbreaks, and/or perhaps a scale of increased risk as ocean biota populations decline. Smaller marine populations would be at greater risk of infection, simply because the viruses would have a reduced number of vectors to infect.
The unknown is calling
Virology is one of the most underrated of biological studies. Viral ecosystem interactions, particularly in huge environments, need to be studied. Given that about 30% of human food comes from the sea, what’s not known is a exactly how dangerous the viruses are, at this point in history.
The previous underestimation of viral populations indicates that a lot more study, and much better understanding, will be required. There are now nearly 200,000 more risks than there were before. Good management will require proper attention and some pretty hard slog research to deal with any future risks.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about marine virus populations study 2019, Ohio state university, marine ecology, marine DNA viruses, marine biota populations and viral impacts
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