Biology professor awarded NSF grant for pioneering work on coral reefs

Coral reefs around the world are in crisis. In the Caribbean alone, coral reefs have experienced drastic losses in the past 30 years, with 80 percent of the live corals lost since 1977. Coral disease is a major cause of the pandemic major decline of the reefs. While scientists can identify 20-22 different coral diseases, they know the causes of only four of them.

Rebecca Vega-Thurber, FIU assistant professor of biology in the School of Environment and Society (SEAS), is playing a key role in confronting the global coral reef crisis. She has been awarded a three-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study viruses in coral reefs around the world, focusing particularly on reefs in the Caribbean, Australia and Hawaii.

A prominent microbial ecologist and virologist, Vega-Thurber’s pioneering work on herpes-like viruses in coral reefs has drawn national attention. Her research was highlighted in a recent article in The Scientist magazine. After giving a talk at the American Museum of Natural History about herpes-like viruses in corals, her findings were mentioned on Comedy Central’s The Colbert’s Report.

Living coral reefs are the foundation for many marine species and play a major role in stabilizing ecosystems.

“We call them ecosystem engineers,” Vega-Thurber explained. “They are like trees in the forest. The corals provide food and habitat for the fish, algae and all of the animals that live on the reefs. When you lose the corals, there is the terrible effect of losing everything else, too.”

“It’s tragic that coral reefs in the Caribbean have been so hard hit by diseases,” she added. “These diseases progress very quickly, but we don’t know what’s causing them. If we can figure that out, then we can potentially come up with a way to prevent or treat the corals in the future if there are outbreaks of disease.”

Vega-Thurber and her team are among the first researchers in the world to use a groundbreaking new technology, metagenomic pyrosequencing technology, to identify all of the different viruses present in corals. This technology helps researchers obtain an unprecedented amount of information that was difficult to identify with past sequencing.

It was her love of the ocean and desire to conserve it that drew Vega-Thurber into her research with coral reefs.

Vega-Thurber on a diving expedition

“My father was from the Dominican Republic, and taught me to snorkel before I could walk,” she said. “Seeing all those beautiful Caribbean reefs made me want to become a marine biologist at a very early age.”

Vega-Thurber’s research uses interdisciplinary and high technology approaches to address questions about how organisms and their associated microbiota adapt at the molecular, cellular and community levels to changes in the environment. The long-term focus of her work is to investigate the intimate relationship between marine host species and their bacterial and/or viral counterparts. Using a combination of empirical experimentation, field work, metagenomics and molecular biology, her research provides important insight into a variety of fields including virology, microbiology, coral reef ecology, animal physiology and the evolution of symbioses.

Vega-Thurber earned a doctorate in biological sciences from Stanford University and has been on the FIU faculty since 2009.

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