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

Current Projects

Are viruses key players in SCTLD infections of Florida corals? Florida Department of Environmental Protection C0633A, Co-PI: Rebecca Vega Thurber

This project aims to continue genomically identifying viruses associated with SCTLD infected- and apparently healthy Florida corals (via meta-transcriptomics), and to assess whether any viruses are exclusively associated with SCTLD infection or significantly more abundant in SCTLD-infected coral tissues. This project also aims to visualize and localize signatures of viral infection within coral and Symbiodiniaceae tissue sections. This work will determine if viral infection signs are enriched in coral colonies affected by SCTLD, and the extent to which signs of viral infection are localized within Symbiodiniaceae cells.

A multi-scale approach to predicting coral disease spread: leveraging an outbreak on coral-dense isolated reefs. OCE-2316578, Co-PIs: Marilyn Brandt, Amy Apprill, Dan Holstein

Over the last four decades, diseases decimated ecosystem engineers in marine coastal environments, including coral reefs. Recent results from studies of white plague and stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) show coral species immune traits can influence disease resistance and therefore predict of coral community structure post-outbreak in the Caribbean. In late August of 2022, an unidentified multi-species acute tissue loss disease with signs and species susceptibility characteristics reminiscent of white plague or SCTLD was documented at the Flower Garden Banks (northwest Gulf of Mexico, GoM). This disease is having significant impacts on FGB and could become widespread across the GoM, offering an opportunity to test hypotheses about the influence of coral community composition and pathogen dispersal on disease spread during the early stages of an outbreak; few studies examine this on relatively isolated, deep, coral-dense reefs. The interdisciplinary research team employs photomosaics and colony fate-tracking, layered molecular datasets and microscopy approaches, as well as modeling of disease reservoirs and dispersal to assess the etiology of the disease and contribute to the development of a generalizable framework for disease spread on reefs. By parsing the impacts of reef-scale community composition versus seascape-scale dispersal in disease transmission and persistence, this work helps reveal the potential resistance and resilience of isolated, coral-dense reefs to diseases that decimate these ecosystems across the wider Caribbean.

Building consensus around the quantification and interpretation of Symbiodiniaceae diversity. OCE-2127514, Co-PIs: Sarah Davies, John Parkinson

Single-celled microorganisms are highly diverse and play various roles in the function of natural ecosystems, but it is challenging to recognize how genetic, morphological, and physiological diversity relate to each other in microbial groups. In an exemplary case, micro-algae in the family Symbiodiniaceae comprise many species that can only be distinguished using molecular data. Symbiodinaceae function as symbionts of various marine invertebrates, but are perhaps best known as the key to coral reef ecosystem health and persistence. The team is hosting a virtual workshop in August 2021 to identify and build further consensus among experts regarding the assessment of Symbiodiniaceae diversity. By formalizing consensus approaches and disseminating them broadly, this workshop is creating a more collaborative and welcoming research community and ensuring that all current researchers, as well as those entering the field, feel confident applying for grants, conducting research, and publishing papers that incorporate work on Symbiodiniaceae diversity. This workshop is defining additional forward-thinking research priorities that anticipate methodological advances over the next 5-10 years.

Testing the effects of predator-derived feces on host symbiont acquisition and health. OCE-2145472

Climate change and local-scale anthropogenic stressors are degrading coral reefs across the globe. When conditions become too stressful on reefs, corals can lose beneficial microbial symbionts (e.g., dinoflagellates in the family Symbiodiniaceae) that live in their tissues via a process called “bleaching”. Although Symbiodiniaceae play key roles in the health of coral colonies, we know little about the processes that make symbionts available in the environment to prospective host corals. This research tests the extent to which coral-eating fish feces, which contain live Symbiodiniaceae, facilitate symbiont acquisition by corals in their early life stages. It will generate seminal knowledge on how corallivore feces impact coral symbioses and health, and will assess the ecological importance of corallivorous fishes as drivers of coral symbiont assemblages. This research also tests the extent to which corallivore feces are a source of food and nutrients that impact coral health; this has particular relevance to the survival and recovery of bleached adult corals. This research can ultimately inform intervention strategies to support reef resilience and mitigate reef degradation.

A multi-scale approach to predicting infectious multi-host disease spread in marine benthic communities. OCE-2109622Co-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.

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