Rebecca Vega Thurber: The coral doctor

© Daniel Portnoy

It’s not every day that a biologist’s work makes it on to Comedy Central. But after giving a talk at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City about herpes-like viruses in corals, that’s what happened to Rebecca Vega Thurber, then a marine biology postdoc.1 Her findings were mentioned on Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report, where the comedian called coral reefs the “sluts of the sea.”

“It was a huge honor,” Vega Thurber says. “The only next biggest step is the Nobel prize or being on Jon Stewart,” her postdoc advisor, San Diego State University marine biologist Forest Rohwer, concurs. Vega Thurber notes that the virus she found “is very distantly related to herpes viruses, but that’s its closest relative based on the [SEED and GenBank] databases.” That was apparently close enough for Colbert.

During her graduate years...

Vega Thurber and her colleagues at SDSU used metagenomics to sequence all of the nucleic acids in stromatolites—layered structures containing ancient bacterial mats thought to be one of the oldest communities on Earth.2 More than 97% of the viruses they recovered from these mats had never before been recorded. “The viruses that we collected were more different than anything we’ve ever looked at…ever,” Vega Thurber said. Even more puzzling, “stromatolites that were right next to each other didn’t share any viruses in common,” suggesting an unusual level of biogeographical variability.

Vega Thurber also used metagenomics to sequence almost 15 million genetic fragments from nine biomes, including the ocean.3 “The viruses contained a lot of genes that were unexpected,” Vega Thurber said, including accessory genes, such as mobility or photosynthesis genes, that may benefit the microbes. Intrigued by the role viruses play in marine communities, Vega Thurber aims to go beyond cataloging viruses to determine how they impact their hosts. “About 30% of coral death is attributed to disease,” she says, but the etiology of those diseases is still unknown.

While at SDSU, Vega Thurber took younger students under her wing, advising them, collaborating on projects, and taking them into the field. “She’s a great mentor [and] a really great example of a woman in science who’s no nonsense,” says Dana Willner, a graduate student at SDSU who worked with Vega Thurber. “It was very clear that she would soon be running her own lab.”

Vega Thurber recently made this prediction a reality, accepting a faculty position at Florida International University. Currently, she employs only her lab tech, Rory Welsh, but two graduate students will join her this fall.

“She can pretty much take the research anywhere she wants,” Welsh says. “She’s open to other people having their own ideas, and she has an endless supply of her own ideas—it’s just a matter of picking one and going for it.”

Title: Assistant Professor of Biology at Florida International University
Age: 33 years old
Representative publications:

1. R.V. Thurber et al., “Metagenomic analysis indicates that stressors induce production of herpes-like viruses in the coral Porites compressa.” Proc Natl Acad Sci, 105:18413–18, 2008. (Cited in 1 paper)
2. C. Desnues, et al., “Biodiversity and biogeography of phages in modern stromatolites and thrombolites.” Nature, 452, 340–43, 2008. (Cited in 14 papers)
3. E.A. Dinsdale, et al., “Functional metagenomic profiling of nine biomes.” Nature, 452, 629–32, 2008. (Cited in 30 papers)

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