Microbiologist pioneers research to protect coral ecosystems

Associate professor of microbiology Rebecca Vega Thurber has pioneered research aimed at protecting marine biodiversity with a special focus on highly endangered coral reefs. Coral reefs are some of the most diverse and economically beneficial ecosystems on earth. Home to thousands of species of fish and teeming with myriad life forms, coral reefs are reservoirs of immense environmental and biological wealth.

Rebecca Vega-Thurber, Microbiology

Thurber’s three-year field experiment on a coral reef in the Florida Keys—one of the largest and longest field experiments done on this topic—found evidence that overfishing, pollution and climate change-induced warming waters intersect to cause coral disease and death.

Thurber and her fellow researchers found a solution to restore coral health. Through a complex experiment carried out underwater, she studied the effects of overfishing and nutrient pollution on the microbiome of corals and, ultimately, the health of corals.

She found out that herbivorous fish not only help increase healthy microbes on corals, but they also appeared to buffer some of the negative effects of ocean warming and thermal stress on corals.

Thurber’s research provides insights into how corals can survive global warming: protecting fish species and minimizing pollution can help prevent coral deaths even during very warm temperatures.

She is currently the director of the Global Coral Microbiome Project (GCMP) an international collaborative project aimed at evaluating the microbiome of coral species that span the entire coral tree of life and are found in different habitats across the planet.

GCMP scientists travel all over the world from French Polynesia to the Red Sea and the Lizard island on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to examine the underlying causes of coral disease at a critical time for this vanishing habitat. The project will study the genome sequences and metabolic capabilities of key coral bacteria to understand their influence on stress or disease in different coral species.

Thurber was recently awarded a three-year $750K National Science Foundation grant to advance her research on viral infection in corals and investigate the factors that trigger outbreaks. Thurber’s research will quantify and describe an integrated mechanism by which environmental stressors alter coral diversity and ecosystem function.

She has received over $2.5 million in federal and state funding to support her research on marine microbial ecology and trained postdocs, graduate students and undergraduates in microbiology, virology, marine ecology, genomics, metagenomics and meta-transcriptomics.

 

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