• Open Access

High abundance of virulence gene homologues in marine bacteria


  • Present address, Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Carl-von-Linné-Weg 10, D-50829 Cologne, Germany.

  • Re-use of this article is permitted in accordance with the Creative Commons Deed, Attribution 2.5, which does not permit commercial exploitation.

*E-mail ake.hagstrom@hik.se; Tel. (+46) 480 447314; Fax (+46) 480 447308.


Marine bacteria can cause harm to single-celled and multicellular eukaryotes. However, relatively little is known about the underlying genetic basis for marine bacterial interactions with higher organisms. We examined whole-genome sequences from a large number of marine bacteria for the prevalence of homologues to virulence genes and pathogenicity islands known from bacteria that are pathogenic to terrestrial animals and plants. As many as 60 out of 119 genomes of marine bacteria, with no known association to infectious disease, harboured genes of virulence-associated types III, IV, V and VI protein secretion systems. Type III secretion was relatively uncommon, while type IV was widespread among alphaproteobacteria (particularly among roseobacters) and type VI was primarily found among gammaproteobacteria. Other examples included homologues of the Yersinia murine toxin and a phage-related ‘antifeeding’ island. Analysis of the Global Ocean Sampling metagenomic data indicated that virulence genes were present in up to 8% of the planktonic bacteria, with highest values in productive waters. From a marine ecology perspective, expression of these widely distributed genes would indicate that some bacteria infect or even consume live cells, that is, generate a previously unrecognized flow of organic matter and nutrients directly from eukaryotes to bacteria.