Abstract: Viruses are the most common biological agents in the global oceans, with numbers typically averaging ten billion per litre. The ability of viruses to infect all organisms indicates they most likely play a central role in marine ecosystems and have important consequences for the entire marine food web. Marine viruses influence many biogeochemical and ecological processes, including energy and nutrient cycling, host distribution and abundance, and horizontal gene transfer events. Viruses are obligate symbionts, typically thought of as agents of disease, but they can also confer benefits to their hosts and the surrounding environment. Although the importance of viruses in the marine environment is recognised, many aspects of viral-host interactions are poorly understood and this is undoubtedly the case in coral reef research. The goal of this presentation is to provide an overview of the current research on viruses in the marine environment, including a summary of what has been done on corals thus far, and outline how our viral research at AIMS is improving our understanding of viruses associated with coral reefs. Elucidating the role viruses play in corals is timely, particularly in relation to the threats coral reefs face, such as the impact of climate change on these important ecosystems.
Karen Weynberg was awarded her M.Res. degree in marine biology from the University of Plymouth, UK, in 2005. Her research was conducted under the supervision of Dr Declan Schroeder at the Marine Biological Association of the UK. The MRes dissertation was based on the molecular characterisation of giant lysogenic viruses that infect macroalgae of the order Ectocarpales. In 2009, Karen was awarded a PhD from the University of Warwick, UK. Her research, supervised by Dr Willie Wilson and Professor David Scanlan, was conducted mainly at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). The basis of the PhD was to detect and isolate novel viruses that infect microalgae, mainly of the nano- and pico- size fractions. Several novel viruses were isolated and characterised. Two of the novel viruses were selected for whole genome sequencing, which enabled insights to be gleaned on horizontal gene transfer between virus and hosts and other interactions arising from their close relationship over evolutionary time. Following her PhD, Karen worked as a postdoctoral researcher for 18 months on a BBSRC-DEFRA funded project at PML, in collaboration with the University of Durham, researching the potential for microalgae to be used as a source of biofuel. However, Karen realised she sorely missed working with marine viruses and in October 2011, Karen began working at AIMS as a Super Science Fellow, researching the viruses associated with corals.
Elisha M Wood-Charlson received her PhD in 2008 from Oregon State University, which focused on the molecular mechanisms of recognition between algal symbionts and coral larvae during infection. After finishing her PhD, she spent some time teaching as a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, California, and a visiting Assistant Professor at Linfield College, Oregon. In late 2009, Elisha started a post-doctoral fellowship with the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education, based at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, working on viruses that infect cyanobacteria, the dominant form of life in the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres. Her recent return to coral research brings these diverse research fields together with the goal of understanding the community composition and function of coral holobiont-associated viruses under “normal” conditions and conditions associated with changing climate, such as bleaching and disease.