Part of the family of single-celled marine bacteria called SAR11, these drifting organisms look like tiny jelly beans and have evolved to outcompete other bacteria for scarce resources in the oceans.
The findings, published in Nature Microbiology, could lead to new understanding of viral survival strategies, according to the researchers.
Oceanographers discovered that the bacteria that dominate seawater, known as Pelagibacter or SAR11, hosts a unique type of virus that spends most of its time dormant in the host’s DNA but occasionally erupts to infect other cells, potentially carrying some of its host’s genetic material along with it.
“Many bacteria have viruses that exist in their genomes. But people had not found them in the ocean’s most abundant organisms,” says co-lead author Robert Morris, an associate professor of oceanography at the University of Washington. “We suspect it’s probably common, or more common than we thought—we just had never seen it.”