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Marine viruses that infect phytoplankton are recognized as a major ecological and evolutionary driving force, shaping community structure and nutrient cycling in the marine environment. Little is known about the signal transduction pathways mediating viral infection. We show that viral glycosphingolipids regulate infection of Emiliania huxleyi, a cosmopolitan coccolithophore that plays a major role in the global carbon cycle. These sphingolipids derive from an unprecedented cluster of biosynthetic genes in Coccolithovirus genomes, are synthesized de novo during lytic infection, and are enriched in virion membranes. Purified glycosphingolipids induced biochemical hallmarks of programmed cell death in an uninfected host. These lipids were detected in coccolithophore populations in the North Atlantic, which highlights their potential as biomarkers for viral infection in the oceans.
↵* Present address: Department of Plant Sciences, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel.