Link to Pubmed [PMID] – 37169871
Link to DOI – 10.1038/s41396-023-01431-y
ISME J 2023 May; In press
It is generally assumed that viruses outnumber cells on Earth by at least tenfold. Virus-to-microbe ratios (VMR) are largely based on counts of fluorescently labelled virus-like particles. However, these exclude intracellular viruses and potentially include false positives (DNA-containing vesicles, gene-transfer agents, unspecifically stained inert particles). Here, we develop a metagenome-based VMR estimate (mVRM) that accounts for DNA viruses across all stages of their replication cycles (virion, intracellular lytic and lysogenic) by using normalised RPKM (reads per kilobase of gene sequence per million of mapped metagenome reads) counts of the major capsid protein (MCP) genes and cellular universal single-copy genes (USCGs) as proxies for virus and cell counts, respectively. After benchmarking this strategy using mock metagenomes with increasing VMR, we inferred mVMR across different biomes. To properly estimate mVMR in aquatic ecosystems, we generated metagenomes from co-occurring cellular and viral fractions (>50 kDa-200 µm size-range) in freshwater, seawater and solar saltern ponds (10 metagenomes, 2 control metaviromes). Viruses outnumbered cells in freshwater by ~13 fold and in plankton from marine and saline waters by ~2-4 fold. However, across an additional set of 121 diverse non-aquatic metagenomes including microbial mats, microbialites, soils, freshwater and marine sediments and metazoan-associated microbiomes, viruses, on average, outnumbered cells by barely two-fold. Although viruses likely are the most diverse biological entities on Earth, their global numbers might be closer to those of cells than previously estimated.