Star Wars: Viruses versus Crown-of-Thorns Starfish. A new hope?

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1. Summary (Provide a short plain English summary of your work, ~150 words)

One of Australia's most iconic features, the Great Barrier Reef, is facing a huge threat in the form of the coral-eating Crown-of-thorns starfish. An adult Crown-of-thorns starfish devours live coral and can leave a trail of decimated coral reef in their wake. These starfish have now reached plague proportions and are the second greatest cause of destruction on the Great Barrier Reef after cyclone damage. Could viruses be the answer to control the population booms of this species and contain the mass outbreaks that result in major coral decline? Despite decades of research into Crown-of-thorns starfish, no research has ever been conducted into their microbiology, particularly the viruses that infect them. My research focuses on this unexplored area of Crown-of-thorns starfish biology and has the potential to provide novel and groundbreaking findings, including a possible natural population control mechanism.

2. Description (Describe the benefit of your research to Queenslanders, ~500 words)

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most iconic features on Earth but is facing a huge threat to its existence from the Crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS). The favourite food of an adult COTS is live coral and a single COTS can devour as much as 10 metre squared of live coral per year. Although COTS are native to the Great Barrier Reef, their numbers have reached pest proportions. In healthy coral reefs, COTS play an important role, usually feeding on the fastest growing corals, such as staghorns and plate corals, allowing slower-growing coral species to establish colonies. This helps to increase the diversity of coral species on the reef. However, population explosions of this toxic coral predator pose one of the most significant threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef, or GBR, is the only living structure visible from space and has been awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO. This amazing tropical ecosystem supports wide biodiversity and provides great social and economic benefits to Queensland and Australia, through activities such as tourism and fishing, contributing over $5 billion & 50,000 jobs each year. Research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science has revealed that coral cover on the GBR has declined by about 50 per cent over the past 30 years. Crown-of-thorns starfish are responsible for almost half of this decline.

Since the 1960s there have been four documented outbreaks of COTS on the Great Barrier Reef, with the latest starting in 2010. COTS are a hugely fertile species with a single female producing as many as 65 million eggs in one season. One of the few creatures that eats COTS is the giant Triton snail but one Triton only eats one COTS per week. A hand control method involves divers physically removing individual COTS or injecting them with a chemical that induces death. In the past 3 years, this method has removed 300,000 COTS from the reef but it is an inefficient and expensive population control method. Currently there are an estimated 5 million COTS on the GBR, so we need more effective control measures.

What else can we look to in order to solve this problem? Despite decades of COTS research, no one has studied the viruses that infect COTS. Large populations of COTS can suddenly plummet, with mass mortality occurring before food supplies run out, indicating a virus may be the cause. If we are to know as much about the biology and ecology of COTS we need to investigate the viruses that target this species, too. My research will establish a baseline knowledge of the viruses present in healthy and diseased COTS and build on this to examine whether viruses could help to control the number of COTS on the Great Barrier Reef. The future of one of Queensland’s most important assets hangs in the balance. My research will help to restore this important ecosystem back to health, ensuring the GBR can continue to provide economic support and enjoyment for future generations of Queenslanders.

3. Additional Details (Short biography, list of key collaborators and summary of your track-record, ~500 words)

Karen Weynberg is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and previous Australian Research Council Super Science Fellow at the Australian Institute of Marine Science based in Townsville, Queensland. Karen has a background in biochemistry, specialising in marine virology at Masters level, and has 12 years of experience researching viruses in the oceans. She was awarded a PhD from the University of Warwick, U.K., in 2009, for which she researched novel marine viruses that infect phytoplankton. Several novel marine algal viruses were isolated and characterised during this PhD. Following her PhD, Karen worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, U.K., in collaboration with the University of Durham. In 2011, Karen joined AIMS as a Super Science Fellow to conduct research into the viruses associated with coral reef ecosystems. The overarching aim of her research has been to provide a detailed understanding of critical roles that viruses play in coral health, coral bleaching and adaptation of corals to climate change. This has been achieved by characterising the viruses associated with healthy, diseased and bleached corals, thereby identifying these viruses and their functional roles within corals. Globally, this is a new and emerging area of research, with many novel and exciting discoveries anticipated surrounding the role viruses play in coral reefs, particularly under changing climatic conditions. Karen is hoping to open a new pioneering research area investigating viruses that target the Crown-of-Thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef.

Key collaborators:
Professor Curtis Suttle, University of British Colombia, Canada - World-leading marine virologist
Dr Nicole Webster, AIMS, Australia - Renowned molecular microbial ecologist
Dr Ian Hewson, Cornell University, USA; Dr Lone Hoj, AIMS, Australia: Experts in virology/microbiology with interests in echinoderms inc. Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci)
Dr David Bourne, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia: Coral reef disease expert
Assoc. Professor Peta Clode, University of Western Australia: Coral reef and microscopy expertise
Assoc. Professor Christian Voolstra, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia: Molecular coral reef biologist and bioinformatician expert
Summary of track record:
Following my PhD in biological science, I gained 6 years postdoctoral experience in research institutes based in the U.K. and Australia, including a 3 year ARC Super Science Fellowship. I have conducted high-quality research in microbiology publishing my research findings in high-impact journals, including ‘Nature Scientific Reports’, ‘Environmental Microbiology’, and ‘Journal of Virology’. I have presented my research (and co-chaired sessions) at several national and international microbiology conferences and have established ongoing collaborations with eminent microbiologists. I co-supervise Masters and PhD students and aim to encourage more young scientists to engage in research.

I have experience engaging with key stakeholders, such as the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) and Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). I regularly participate in science communication, outreach and public engagement activities, including school tours and presentations, ‘Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools’ program (I work with Pimlico State High School and Hermit Park State School in Townsville), conferences, national science week events, and public open days, including acting in a science theatre production about coral reefs for a general audience. I was the winner of a 3 minute speed talk competition, for which an accessible oral summary of your research needed to be delivered, using just one static slide as a visual aid.



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Virologist currently studying viruses associated with the Great Barrier Reef. Mum to 3 awesome teenage children! :-)