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Appl Environ Microbiol. 1992 Nov;58(11):3721-9.

Mechanisms and rates of decay of marine viruses in seawater.

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  • 1Marine Science Institute, The University of Texas at Austin, P.O. Box 1267, Port Aransas, Texas 78373-1267.


Loss rates and loss processes for viruses in coastal seawater from the Gulf of Mexico were estimated with three different marine bacteriophages. Decay rates in the absence of sunlight ranged from 0.009 to 0.028 h, with different viruses decaying at different rates. In part, decay was attributed to adsorption by heat-labile particles, since viruses did not decay or decayed very slowly in seawater filtered through a 0.2-mum-pore-size filter (0.2-mum-filtered seawater) and in autoclaved or ultracentrifuged seawater but continued to decay in cyanide-treated seawater. Cyanide did cause decay rates to decrease, however, indicating that biological processes were also involved. The observations that decay rates were often greatly reduced in 0.8- or 1.0-mum-filtered seawater, whereas bacterial numbers were not, suggested that most bacteria were not responsible for the decay. Decay rates were also reduced in 3-mum-filtered or cycloheximide-treated seawater but not in 8-mum-filtered seawater, implying that flagellates consumed viruses. Viruses added to flagellate cultures decayed at 0.15 h, corresponding to 3.3 viruses ingested flagellate h. Infectivity was very sensitive to solar radiation and, in full sunlight, decay rates were 0.4 to 0.8 h. Even when UV-B radiation was blocked, rates were as high as 0.17 h. Calculations suggest that in clear oceanic waters exposed to full sunlight, most of the virus decay, averaged over a depth of 200 m, would be attributable to solar radiation. When decay rates were averaged over 24 h for a 10-m coastal water column, loss rates of infectivity attributable to sunlight were similar to those resulting from all other processes combined. Consequently, there should be a strong diel signal in the concentration of infectious viruses. In addition, since sunlight destroys infectivity more quickly than virus particles, a large proportion of the viruses in seawater is probably not infective.

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