New Project – Aquatic Flaviviruses and Sea Cucumbers!

I’m excited to announce that the lab has been awarded funding from NSF to study the interaction between oceanographic conditions, sea cucumbers, and a newly-discovered group of enveloped single-stranded RNA viruses (the aquatic invertebrate-only Flaviviruses or aiFVs). We know very little about the ecology of this group of viruses, which are distant relatives of important human pathogens like Zika and Dengue viruses. You can read more about our work to discover these viruses here.

For seven years our group has investigated sea star wasting disease and very recently published the results of a multi-year investigation of its potential etiology, which involves microbial activities and depleted oxygen near animal respiratory surfaces. While we’re wrapping up some of this work (e.g. studying how sea star associated densovirus replicates in host cells), our lab will now focus on how environmental perturbations, like depleted oxygen and phytoplankton productivity, impact aiFV replication in sea cucumber tissues. Sea cucumbers are reported to experience a wasting-like condition similar to sea star wasting, sometimes at the same locations and times. The hypotheses we’ll be testing in this new project are: H1) aiFVs do not cause gross pathology under typical conditions; H2) aiFVs proliferate and generate clinical and gross pathology under suboxic stress; and H3) periodic increases in primary production and mean temperature excursions cause aiFV proliferation and subsequently exacerbate holothurian disease process. We’ll be performing this work in the northeast Pacific, focusing on southeast Alaska (Sitka/Juneau/Ketchikan), but hope to perform diversity survey of aiFVs from the Kenai peninsula to central California. The study will focus primarily on the giant Caliofornia sea cucumber (Apostichopus californicus), but we are also interested in working on the sympatric Cucumaria miniata as well.

This project will provide many opportunities for collaborative research. We are especially interested in working with citizen scientists, [sea cucumber] fishers, high school students, and Alaskan Native tribes and groups in southeast Alaska. We’re also looking to partner with these organizational units in the Salish Sea and central California regions. If you’re interested in participating, please contact us!

We are also looking to engage with undergraduate researchers both at Cornell, as well as in southeast Alaska – especially over the summer.

Later this year, we’ll be hosting a workshop to bring together biological oceanographers, marine disease ecologists, and veterinarians/aquatic animal health professionals – stay tuned.

Finally, NSF Biological Oceanography has recently announced a postdoctoral program to support research on projects they have funded. If you’re interested in joining the team on this project, please get in touch.

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