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Appl Environ Microbiol. 1996 Apr;62(4):1336-41.

Effects of sunlight on bacteriophage viability and structure.

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Center of Marine Biotechnology, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, Baltimore 21202, USA.


Current estimates of viral abundance in natural waters rely on direct counts of virus-like particles (VLPs), using either transmission or epifluorescence microscopy. Direct counts of VLPs, while useful in studies of viral ecology, do not indicate whether the observed VLPs are capable of infection and/or replication. Rapid decay in bacteriophage viability under environmental conditions has been observed. However, it has not been firmly established whether there is a corresponding degradation of the virus particles. To address this question, viable and direct counts were carried out employing two Chesapeake Bay bacteriophages in experimental microcosms incubated for 56 h at two depths in the York River estuary. Viruses incubated in situ in microcosms at the surface yielded decay rates in full sunlight of 0.11 and 0.06 h-1 for CB 38 phi and CB 7 phi, respectively. The number of infective particles in microcosms in the dark and at a depth of 1 m was not significantly different from laboratory controls, with decay rates averaging 0.052 h-1 for CB 38 phi and 0.037 h-1 for CB 7 phi. Direct counts of bacteriophages decreased in teh estuarine microcosms, albeit only at a rate of 0.028 h-1, and were independent of treatment. Destruction of virus particles is concluded to be a process separate from loss of infectivity. It is also concluded that strong sunlight affects the viability of bacteriophages in surface waters, with the result that direct counts of VLPs overestimate the number of bacteriophage capable of both infection and replication. However, in deeper waters, where solar radiation is not a significant factor, direct counts should more accurately estimate numbers of viable bacteriophage.

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