Prophages in marine bacteria: dangerous molecular time bombs or the key to survival in the seas?

ISME J. 2008 Jun;2(6):579-89. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2008.35.


Bacteriophages are realized to be numerous and important components of oceanic food webs principally because of their lytic capabilities. The subtle changes that temperate phages impart to their hosts in the oceans are far less understood. Occurrences of lysogeny in the oceans correlate well with conditions unfavorable for rapid host growth. In coliphage lambda, phage encoded repressors have been shown to modulate host metabolic gene expression and phenotype, resulting in economizing host energy expenditure. Comparison of lysogenized marine bacteria to the uninfected hosts indicated that prophage acquisition is correlated with host metabolic gene suppression. Screening 113 marine bacterial genomes for prophages yielded 64 prophage-like elements, 21 of which strongly resembled gene transfer agents (GTAs). The remaining 39 putative prophages had a relatively high incidence of transcriptional regulatory and repressor-like proteins (approximately 2/40 kb prophage sequence) compared to lytic marine phages (approximately 0.25/40 kb phage sequence). Here, it has been hypothesized that marine prophages directly contribute to host survival in unfavorable environments by suppression of unneeded metabolic activities. It has been further suggested that such metabolic downshifts are the result of phage-encoded repressors and transcriptional regulators acting directly on host genes. Finally, the widespread occurrence of GTAs may be an efficient mechanism for horizontal gene transfer in the oceans.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Bacteria / virology*
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Gene Transfer, Horizontal
  • Genome, Viral
  • Lysogeny
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phenotype
  • Prophages / genetics*
  • Prophages / isolation & purification
  • Prophages / physiology*
  • Seawater / microbiology*
  • Viral Proteins / genetics
  • Viral Proteins / metabolism


  • Viral Proteins