Current research foci include:
1. Investigating the phylogenetic, genomic, and biogeographic characteristics of novel bacterial and eukaryotic symbionts of corals to survey the prevalence, ecology, and evolution of new taxa.
2. Utilizing experimental manipulations to understand how shifts in environmental parameters drive changes (structural and functional) in the microbial community of coral reefs and how these changes cascade down to the remineralization of important nutrients in the reef, the community composition of benthic or aquatic animals and plants, and the general function of the habitat.
3. Using microscopy and meta'omics to study how phage and eukaryotic viruses regulate aspects of marine biology and oceanography, particularly to understand which viruses may contribute to disease or decline in these habitats.
Viral Disease Identification in Marine Vertebrates (VDIMV)
Currently, we are working with collaborators at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to identify the causal agents of Puffy Snout Syndrome (PSS), which is a deformative infectious disease of unknown origin in captive held Scombrids (tunas and mackerels). Graduate student Savanah Leidholt is examining DNA and RNA extracts from captive fish tissue for evidence of infection by parasites, bacteria, and viral agents.
Coral - Fish - Algae (CFA)
This project, spearheaded by Adriana Messyasz, examines the effects of nutrient pollution on Mo’orea’s reefs by tracking how enrichment affects the microbes of coral, fish, and algae. With this research, we are studying how nutrient pollution affects coral-algal farming by Stegastes nigricans, an important coral ecosystem trophic dynamic, along with the bacteria and viruses that reside within these organisms. Gaining vital information on the microbes found in coral reefs under different environmental conditions will inform future questions into the causative links of coral disease and the mechanisms of microbial infection.
Mo'orea Virus Project (MVP)
The Mo’orea Virus Project is a collaboration with the Correa Lab at Rice University and the Thurber Lab at Oregon State University. Many members of the Vega Thurber Lab have participated in this multi-year time series in Mo’orea, French Polynesia. Lab and field experiments continue to be conducted at the Moorea Coral Reef LTER to characterize the spatiotemporal dynamics of viruses within three dominant reef-building coral species (Acropora hyacinthus, Pocillopora verrucosa, and Porites lobata) that differ in their susceptibility to abiotic stress. Marker colonies from these species have been sampled for four years across three unique reef environments (fore, back, and fringing reef).
RECHARGE is a six-year time series in Mo'orea exploring the interacting effects of herbivory, nutrient enrichment, and seasonal temperature variation on coral reef ecosystems and their associated microbes. A collaboration with the Burkepile Lab at University of California Santa Barbara, this project assesses cascading effects of exclusion of reef herbivores from coral plots in tandem with exposure to inorganic nutrients on reef health and recovery to disruption. We examine reef ecosystem health using metrics ranging from the micro to macro scales, including microbial community structure, fish and algal abundance, and coral recruitment and growth. Lab members involved in this project include Alex Vompe, Hannah Epstein, Grace Klinges, and Emily Schmeltzer.
Rickettsiales in Caribbean Acropora (RICA)
Despite connections between overall microbial community composition and coral health, assessing the roles of individual microbial community members has proved difficult. We identified a novel Rickettsiales genus, Aquarickettsia, members of which are capable of both ATP and amino acid parasitism of their hosts. This parasite is strongly associated with disease susceptibility in Acropora cervicornis and responds positively to nutrient-rich conditions. To better understand the role of this parasite in host health, we employ diverse techniques including qPCR, FISH, metagenomics, RNA-Seq of both the parasite and host, and nanoSIMS. Lab members involved in this project include Grace Klinges, Lydia Baker, and Becca Maher.
Coral-Viral Community Shifts During Bleaching and Coral Giant Viruses
This work investigates viral metagenomes (viromes) from both bleached and non-bleached corals. These coral phenotypes were found during a bleaching event, where one bleached colony was directly adjacent to another non-bleached colony. We conducted viral community analysis during this paradoxical bleaching pattern and found that bleached corals had a higher relative percent abundance of eukaryotic virus-like sequences, and non-bleached corals had a higher relative percent abundance of bacteriophage-like sequences. Adriana Messyasz assembled the first coral-associated dsDNA eukaryotic giant virus, which we believe is distantly related to other marine Nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses (NCLDVs) and may play a role in coral bleaching.
Coral Health on Mo'orea - Parrotfish and Inorganic Nutrients (CHOMPIN)
Global thermal stress and local anthropogenic nutrient pollution threaten coral reefs worldwide. Conservation and management efforts are particularly interested in how major stressors interact to disturb coral reef functioning. Interactions can be:
Additive: equal to the combined effects of their separate parts
Synergistic: greater than the combined effects of their separate parts
Antagonistic: less than the combined effects of their separate parts
As part of project CHOMPIN, Becca Maher is interested in characterizing the interactive effects of thermal stress, nutrient pollution, and predation on the coral microbiome using a combination of microbial community diversity metrics and differential abundance analysis.
RAPID - 2016 Bleaching Event in Mo'orea, FP
RAPID NSF grant to opportunistically sample corals before, during, and after the 2016 bleaching event in Mo'orea, French Polynesia. In collaboration with the Burkepile Lab, we sampled the microbiomes of corals throughout the bleaching event in different nutrient regimes: nitrate-enriched, urea-enriched, and ambient water. We aim evaluate how different forms of nitrogen interact with temperature stress to drive changes in coral microbiomes, especially on historically resilient reefs. While corals exposed to nitrogen exhibit more severe responses to bleaching, we found that nitrogen source has little effect on the coral microbiome response to temperature. As with our work in CHOMPIN, we are increasingly finding support that high temperatures, rather than nutrient pollution, has a much more profound effect on shaping coral-associated microbial communities.
The Global Coral Microbiome Project (GCMP)
Investigating interactions and coevolution among bacteria and corals across the globe. Bacteria perform a plethora of beneficial functions for their coral hosts, but the majority are unknown and uncharacterized. This project aims to identify microbial functions that have been selected by corals over their evolutionary history, and will begin to do so by characterizing the microbial communities of a wide geographic and taxonomic range of corals which have never been sampled. This project is headed by Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber, postdoc Jesse Zaneveld, Ph.D. student Ryan McMinds, and collaborators at Penn State University Monica Medina and Joe Pollock. GCMP and those involved in the project were featured in the 2018 Oregon State University-produced documentary “Saving Atlantis.”
2016 - 2018 (expedition) 2018 - (analysis)
A large collaborative project with the Tara Foundation, in which our role is to assess the biogeography of microbes (particularly viruses) in the water and in association with corals across the Pacific. The Tara Pacific Expedition (2016-2018) embarked on an east–west transect from Panama to Papua New Guinea and a south–north transect from Australia to Japan, sampling corals throughout 32 island systems with local replicates in order to characterize local and global reef biodiversity and chemical gradients. Current and former lab members Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber, Grace Klinges, Kalia Bistolas, Ryan McMinds, and Jerome Payet have all participated in the project, including field work on Tara and downstream analysis of samples.