Viruses Deflate Huge Algal Blooms at Sea


By Laura Geggel


Gobs of microscopic organisms called algae may have met their match in viruses that can invade their cells, ultimately leading to death, new research suggests.

The findings may help researchers refine models that forecast algal blooms and the influence these microscopic plants have on the climate, experts say.

Algae, also known as phytoplankton, are at the bottom of the food chain and can multiply into blooms spanning thousands of miles at sea. They also carry out about half of all photosynthesis on the planet, relying on pigments like chlorophyll to capture the sun’s energy and, during the process that involves carbon dioxide, turning that energy into sugars. The byproduct of the process is oxygen.

“They are the foundation of the entire life at sea,” said the study’s co-principal investigator Ilan Koren, an associate professor of earth and planetary sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. “There is no life without these algal blooms.”

Using satellite images, the researchers examined algae blooms and their chlorophyll concentrations from space. They focused on an algae patch in the North Atlantic that usually blooms in the spring (in the Southern Hemisphere, algae typically blooms in the fall and winter).


  1. “X(s) called Y” statements always intrigue me in scientific journalism because they betray the author’s doubts about what readers will know the meaning of. What I find remarkable is it often tends to be attached to things people should remember from school, e.g. protons. Apparently a lot of people don’t remember what algae are. (Yes, are not is; the singular is of course alga.)

    Indeed, judging from the description given I’m guessing this author isn’t exactly an expert on them. Unfortunately it’s not even accurate. For starters, there are plenty of macroscopic algae, e.g. seaweed. For another, phytoplankton (which certainly are microscopic) are not synonymous with algae; each group contains organisms the other does not. But I suppose this wasn’t considered important because the study is really only of one species in the overlap. If you’re already going to open with a pretence to the effect that the findings are more general than that, why get upper-level details right?

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