Prochlorococcus is the numerically dominant phototroph in the tropical and subtropical oceans, accounting for half of the photosynthetic biomass in some areas. Here we report the isolation of cyanophages that infect Prochlorococcus, and show that although some are host-strain-specific, others cross-infect with closely related marine Synechococcus as well as between high-light- and low-light-adapted Prochlorococcus isolates, suggesting a mechanism for horizontal gene transfer. High-light-adapted Prochlorococcus hosts yielded Podoviridae exclusively, which were extremely host-specific, whereas low-light-adapted Prochlorococcus and all strains of Synechococcus yielded primarily Myoviridae, which has a broad host range. Finally, both Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus strain-specific cyanophage titres were low (< 10(3) ml(-1)) in stratified oligotrophic waters even where total cyanobacterial abundances were high (> 10(5) cells x ml(-1)). These low titres in areas of high total host cell abundance seem to be a feature of open ocean ecosystems. We hypothesize that gradients in cyanobacterial population diversity, growth rates, and/or the incidence of lysogeny underlie these trends.