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Undersea warfare: Viruses hijack deep-sea bacteria at hydrothermal vents

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More than a mile beneath the ocean's surface, as dark clouds of mineral-rich water billow from seafloor hot springs called hydrothermal vents, unseen armies of viruses and bacteria wage war.

Like pirates boarding a treasure-laden ship, the viruses infect bacterial cells to get the loot: tiny globules of elemental sulfur stored inside the bacterial cells.

Instead of absconding with their prize, the viruses force the bacteria to burn their valuable sulfur reserves, then use the unleashed energy to replicate.

"Our findings suggest that viruses in the dark oceans indirectly access vast energy sources in the form of elemental sulfur," said University of Michigan marine microbiologist and oceanographer Gregory Dick, whose team collected DNA from deep-sea microbes in seawater samples from hydrothermal vents in the Western Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California.

"We suspect that these viruses are essentially hijacking bacterial cells and getting them to consume elemental sulfur so the viruses can propagate themselves," said Karthik Anantharaman of the University of Michigan, first author of a paper on the findings published this week in the journal Science Express.

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