The world of algal viruses has only gotten more interesting in recent years as it has become increasingly clear just the sheer quantity of mortality they cause and how much that drives global nutrient cycling in ways we’ve been largely blind to.
The ecology of viruses that infect eukaryotic algae
Because viruses of eukaryotic algae are incredibly diverse, sweeping generalizations about their ecology are rare. These obligate parasites infect a range of algae and their diversity can be illustrated by considering that isolates range from small particles with ssRNA genomes to much larger particles with 560 kb dsDNA genomes. Molecular research has also provided clues about the extent of their diversity especially considering that genetic signatures of algal viruses in the environment rarely match cultivated viruses. One general concept in algal virus ecology that has emerged is that algal viruses are very host specific and most infect only certain strains of their hosts; with the exception of viruses of brown algae, evidence for interspecies infectivity is lacking. Although some host–virus systems behave with boom-bust oscillations, complex patterns of intraspecies infectivity can lead to host–virus coexistence obfuscating the role of viruses in host population dynamics. Within the framework of population dynamics, host density dependence is an important phenomenon that influences virus abundances in nature. Variable burst sizes of different viruses also influence their abundances and permit speculations about different life strategies, but as exceptions are common in algal virus ecology, life strategy generalizations may not be broadly applicable. Gaps in knowledge of virus seasonality and persistence are beginning to close and investigations of environmental reservoirs and virus resilience may answer questions about virus inter-annual recurrences. Studies of algal mortality have shown that viruses are often important agents of mortality reinforcing notions about their ecological relevance, while observations of the surprising ways viruses interact with their hosts highlight the immaturity of our understanding. Considering that just two decades ago algal viruses were hardly acknowledged, recent progress affords the optimistic perspective that future studies will provide keys to unlocking our understanding of algal virus ecology specifically, and aquatic ecosystems generally.