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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. 

Current projects

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Research

2019 -

Viral Disease Identification in Marine Vertebrates (VDIMV)

Pacific Mackerel with Puffy Snout symptoms
Pacific Mackerel with Puffy Snout symptoms

Pacific Mackerel with Puffy Snout symptoms (mucus membrane layer developing over eyes, swelling on head and mouth) Image: Emily Miller/Monterey Bay Aquarium

Pacific Mackerel with Puffy Snout symptoms
Pacific Mackerel with Puffy Snout symptoms

Pacific Mackerel with Puffy Snout symptoms (mucus membrane layer developing over eyes, swelling on head and mouth) Image: Emily Miller/Monterey Bay Aquarium

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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. 

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2018 -

Coral - Fish - Algae (CFA)

Adriana Messyasz examines a nutrient diffuser on her enrichment plot in Mo'orea.
Adriana Messyasz examines a nutrient diffuser on her enrichment plot in Mo'orea.

CFA
CFA

Undergraduate alumna Sonora Meiling samples corals from the CFA project
Undergraduate alumna Sonora Meiling samples corals from the CFA project

Adriana Messyasz examines a nutrient diffuser on her enrichment plot in Mo'orea.
Adriana Messyasz examines a nutrient diffuser on her enrichment plot in Mo'orea.

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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.

2017 -

 Mo'orea Virus Project (MVP)

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Acropora hyacinthus marker colony
Acropora hyacinthus marker colony

Bleaching surveys and aerial photos
Bleaching surveys and aerial photos

Bleaching surveys and a ramora!
Bleaching surveys and a ramora!

Acropora hyacinthus marker colony
Acropora hyacinthus marker colony

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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 hyacinthusPocillopora 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).

2017 -

RECHARGE

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RECHARGE plot from above. Pink flagging tape to mark colonies, nutrients diffuse from mesh-lined PVC
RECHARGE plot from above. Pink flagging tape to mark colonies, nutrients diffuse from mesh-lined PVC

Grace Klinges, Hannah Epstein, Andrew Thurber. Sun protection is a must!
Grace Klinges, Hannah Epstein, Andrew Thurber. Sun protection is a must!

Grace Klinges, Tom Adam, and Mark Ladd November 2019
Grace Klinges, Tom Adam, and Mark Ladd November 2019

RECHARGE plot from above. Pink flagging tape to mark colonies, nutrients diffuse from mesh-lined PVC
RECHARGE plot from above. Pink flagging tape to mark colonies, nutrients diffuse from mesh-lined PVC

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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.

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2017 -

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.

Nutrient exposure experiment, performed at Mote Marine Laboratory in Summerland Key, FL.
Nutrient exposure experiment, performed at Mote Marine Laboratory in Summerland Key, FL.

Aquarickettsia populations and pathogenicity are influenced by environmental nutrient levels
Aquarickettsia populations and pathogenicity are influenced by environmental nutrient levels

Will Duke and Grace Klinges sample coral tissue
Will Duke and Grace Klinges sample coral tissue

Nutrient exposure experiment, performed at Mote Marine Laboratory in Summerland Key, FL.
Nutrient exposure experiment, performed at Mote Marine Laboratory in Summerland Key, FL.

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2017 -

Coral-Viral Community Shifts During Bleaching and Coral Giant Viruses

A coral pair used for viral metagenomics, found on the northern forereef of Mo'orea, FP.
A coral pair used for viral metagenomics, found on the northern forereef of Mo'orea, FP.

EM of coral tissue, with virus-like particles (arrows), in close proximity to Symbiodiniaceae (S)
EM of coral tissue, with virus-like particles (arrows), in close proximity to Symbiodiniaceae (S)

A coral pair used for viral metagenomics, found on the northern forereef of Mo'orea, FP.
A coral pair used for viral metagenomics, found on the northern forereef of Mo'orea, FP.

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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.

2016 -

Coral Health on Mo'orea - Parrotfish and Inorganic Nutrients (CHOMPIN)

CHOMPIN: effects of herbivory and nutrient enrichment on reef health
CHOMPIN: effects of herbivory and nutrient enrichment on reef health

Becca Maher and Lauren Howe-Kerr sampling coral fragments
Becca Maher and Lauren Howe-Kerr sampling coral fragments

Becca Maher samples coral tissue
Becca Maher samples coral tissue

CHOMPIN: effects of herbivory and nutrient enrichment on reef health
CHOMPIN: effects of herbivory and nutrient enrichment on reef health

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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:

  1.  Additive: equal to the combined effects of their separate parts

  2. Synergistic: greater than the combined effects of their separate parts

  3. 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.

To learn more: Multiple stressors interact primarily through antagonism to drive changes in the coral microbiome (2019)

2016 -

RAPID - 2016 Bleaching Event in Mo'orea, FP

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Water temperatures in 2016 and 2017 in Mo'orea. Temps exceeded bleaching thresholds both years.
Water temperatures in 2016 and 2017 in Mo'orea. Temps exceeded bleaching thresholds both years.

Water temperatures in 2016 and 2017 in Mo'orea. Temps exceeded bleaching thresholds both years.
Water temperatures in 2016 and 2017 in Mo'orea. Temps exceeded bleaching thresholds both years.

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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.

2014 -

The Global Coral Microbiome Project (GCMP)

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Rebecca Vega Thurber and Ryan McMinds collect metadata on a coral colony
Rebecca Vega Thurber and Ryan McMinds collect metadata on a coral colony

Hydnophora microconos, photographed and sampled in Saudi Arabia by Ryan McMinds (2015).
Hydnophora microconos, photographed and sampled in Saudi Arabia by Ryan McMinds (2015).

Acropora gemmifera, photographed and sampled in Lizard Island, Australia by Ryan McMinds (2014).
Acropora gemmifera, photographed and sampled in Lizard Island, Australia by Ryan McMinds (2014).

Rebecca Vega Thurber and Ryan McMinds collect metadata on a coral colony
Rebecca Vega Thurber and Ryan McMinds collect metadata on a coral colony

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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)

Tara Pacific

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The RV Tara
The RV Tara

Pocillopora meandrina
Pocillopora meandrina

Grace Klinges leads a tour of the RV Tara in New York City
Grace Klinges leads a tour of the RV Tara in New York City

The RV Tara
The RV Tara

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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.