Impact of Lytic Phages on Phosphorus- vs. Nitrogen-Limited Marine Microbes

Julie Pourtois, Corina E. Tarnita, Juan A. Bonachela

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Lytic viruses kill almost 20% of marine bacteria every day, re-routing nutrients away from the higher trophic levels of the marine food web and back in the microbial loop. Importantly, the effect of this inflow of key elements on the ecosystem depends on the nutrient requirements of bacteria as well as on the elemental composition of the viruses that infect them. Therefore, the influence of viruses on the ecosystem could vary depending on which nutrient is limiting. In this paper, we considered an existing multitrophic model (nutrient, bacteria, zooplankton, and viruses) that accounts for nitrogen limitation, and developed a phosphorus-limited version to assess whether the limiting nutrient alters the role of viruses in the ecosystem. For both versions, we evaluated the stationary state of the system with and without viruses. In agreement with existing results, nutrient release increased with viruses for nitrogen–limited systems, while zooplankton abundance and export to higher trophic levels decreased. We found this to be true also for phosphorus-limited systems, although nutrient release increased less than in nitrogen-limited systems. The latter supports a nutrient-specific response of the ecosystem to viruses. Bacterial concentration decreased in the phosphorus-limited system but increased in most nitrogen-limited cases due to a switch from mostly bottom-up to entirely top-down control by viruses. Our results also show that viral concentration is best predicted by a power-law of bacterial concentration with exponent different from 1. Finally, we found a positive correlation between carbon export and viruses regardless of the limiting nutrient, which led us to suggest viral abundance as a predictor of carbon sink.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number221
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
StatePublished - Feb 21 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Microbiology


  • carbon sink
  • marine bacteria
  • marine phages
  • nutrient limitation
  • virus-to-prokaryote ratio


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