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We study how microorganisms influence their animal and plant hosts, as well as ecosystem processes, under environmental stress.

Current/Recent Projects: A multi-scale approach to predicting infectious multi-host disease spread in marine benthic communities OCE-2109622, Co-PIs: Marilyn Brandt, Amy Apprill, Dan Holstein, Laura Mydlarz

Over the last four decades, marine diseases have decimated ecosystem engineers in marine coastal ecosystems, including the rocky intertidal, seagrasses and coral reefs. The pathogens driving these diseases have frequently been challenging to isolate, characterize and confirm, in part because they affect multiple host species and can spread by ocean currents, as well as through individual contact. We propose a multi-scale epidemic model for studying marine disease that addresses both within-host and within-patch disease dynamics, and explicitly acknowledges the dispersal of pathogens between populations. Our interdisciplinary research team of ecologists, connectivity and disease modelers, microbiologists, and coral immunologists will integrate the largest set of predictors of marine disease spread to date: individual host species traits that allow for disease resistance or susceptibility, local transmission within communities that may have unique community structure, and hydrodynamic connectivity among susceptible communities. Modeling will be supported with rich data sets of within- and among-patch population characteristics and disease dynamics as well as molecular data on species-level disease responses. This project will advance knowledge of infectious diseases by integrating multidimensional scales and differential host susceptibilities into existing epidemiological models. This model will particularly advance the framework for studying marine diseases and has the potential to elucidate the transmission properties of a devastating Caribbean coral disease (stony coral tissue loss disease) that fits the most confounding and notorious hallmarks of marine diseases: infection of multiple hosts by an elusive pathogen.

Viral Reefscapes: The role of viruses in coral reef health, disease, and biogeochemical cycling OCE-1635798, Co-PIs: Andrew Thurber, Rebecca Vega Thurber

Ecologically and economically, coral reefs are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth. Global (climate change) and local (nutrient pollution and overfishing) stressors are drivers of coral reef decline that can disrupt the symbiotic associations among corals and resident microbial communities, including dinoflagellate algae, bacteria, and viruses. Viruses interact with all living cellular organisms, are abundant in oceans, and integral to marine ecosystem functioning. This project will be the first to quantify the variability of viral infection in corals across different reef habitats and across time. This will increase our understanding of the total diversity of coral viruses and illuminate the full suite of factors that trigger viral outbreaks on reefs. At the same time the project will evaluate how carbon and nitrogen cycling are altered on coral reefs as a result of global and local stressors that trigger viral infection. This project will ultimately broaden our understanding of the impacts of viruses on reefs beyond their role as putative disease agents. 

Impact of freshwater runoff from Hurricane Harvey on coral reef benthic organisms and associated microbial communities.     OCE-1800914, Co-PIs: Sarah Davies, Lory Santiago-Vazquez, Kathryn Shamberger, Jason Sylvan

Anthropogenic climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of storms, which can physically damage reef structures and reduce reef health through changes in seawater quality. In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding in southeast Texas when it released more than 50 trillion liters of rain, which then accumulated along the Texas Shelf. This runoff is expected to impact nearby coral reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS, northwest Gulf of Mexico) via eddies and jets that transport coastal waters offshore. Findings from this project will allow managers to quickly predict whether extreme storm events are likely to induce reef mortality and ecosystem decline due to freshwater accumulation, by tracking of low salinity water masses coupled with microbial community characterization and metrics of coral health. These data are critical to managing coastal ecosystems, including the high coral cover reefs in the FGBNMS, and will help stakeholders (e.g., diving and fishing communities) plan for and minimize disruption to their livelihoods following these storms. 

Predicting the spread of a SCTLD-like disease in the USVI        OCE-1928609, Co-PIs: Amy Apprill, Marilyn Brandt, Daniel Holstein, Erinn Muller, Laura Mydlarz, Tyler B. Smith

Coral reef ecosystems provide substantial economic resources to the societies of the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) and other US locations in the forms of tourism, fishing and coastal protection. However, reefs are among the most threatened marine environments, and coral disease is having a devastating impact on these valued systems. In early 2019, a multi-species rapid tissue loss disease matching the description of stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) was found severely affecting a reef off the southwest coast of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands (USVI). SCTLD has been devastating coral reef communities in southeast Florida for the last four years, and was very recently reported from disparate areas around the Caribbean, including Mexico, Jamaica, and St. Martin. Rapid surveys by the investigators at the University of the Virgin Islands indicate that a 50 km2 area southwest of St. Thomas is the initial incidence area of the disease, but will likely spread across the USVI, British Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. This study performs experiments to understand how this disease affects coral species immune traits and compares the microbiology and physiology of disease samples in the USVI to samples from Florida. It also examines how changing the species composition of a coral community affects the spread and impact of the disease. The overall aim is to produce a model to predict the impact of multi-species disease spread on reefs based on coral species assemblages.

Equipping USVI managers with high and low-tech options for native reef fish and seagrass conservation: mitigating impacts of the invasive seagrass, Halophila stipulacea.        NA18NOS4820104, Co-PIs: Marilyn Brandt, Scott P. Egan

This research aims to mitigate the impacts of an invasive species on native biodiversity and ecosystem function by developing highly sensitive and dependable environmental DNA (eDNA) metagenetic tools and applying them to: 1) characterize the distribution of the invasive seagrass, Halophila stipulacea, in St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands); and 2) quantify how Caribbean reef fish communities differ in native versus H. stipulacea invaded seagrass beds.


BioSciences at Rice

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Program

Logo and Art Credit: Janavi Mahimtura Folmsbee, @janavimfolmsbee 

© Adrienne Simoes Correa 2016