Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber received her doctorate in 2005 from Stanford University where she studied developmental cell signaling pathways in sea urchin larvae. Dr. Vega Thurber then went to San Diego State University where she was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Forest Rohwer studying microbial and viral metagenomics. A majority of her work has focused on the viruses and bacteria associated with tropical organisms and coastal ecosystems. Dr. Vega Thurber is now an assistant professor at Florida International University. Dr. Vega Thurber’s lab currently researches several aspects of marine microbial ecology, including the effects of viruses and bacteria on tropical reef health, marine microbial food web dynamics, and the cascading effects of abiotic stressors on microbial symbioses.
Little is currently known about the role that viruses play on oligotrophic tropical reefs, particularly in regards to long term ecosystem health and resilience. Using metagenomics I have begun to characterize the types of eukaryotic viruses present in tropical stony corals. During my postdoctoral study I asked not only what viruses were present in Central Pacific corals, but also how these consortia of viruses changed during coral exposure to environmental stressors. The most abundant coral-associated DNA viruses recovered were related to herpesviruses, phycodnaviruses, and iridoviruses. Also virus abundance increased by several orders of magnitude when corals were exposed to temperature, nutrient, and pH stress. Analysis of the Nematostella vectensis (an Anthozoan) genome and the Hydra magnipapillata (a Medusozoan) EST library identified several herpes-like viral genes and mRNAs within the draft sequences supporting a hypothesis that herpes-like viruses are found in all Cnidarians and likely have co-evolved with the metazoans. Although a few coral-associated viral consortia have been determined to the family-level, the physiological and ecological effects of such infections remain unclear. My lab’s on going work aims to determine the types of viral consortia in healthy and diseased corals and more importantly their fitness effects on the host. This is being done using viral inoculation experiments and high throughput sequencing of viral consortia from several coral taxa, life stages, and physiological states of corals. The characterization of viral consortia in healthy, diseased, and different life stages of corals will provide scientists clues about the roles that viruses play in the establishment, health, and resilience of these critical ecosystem engineers.