HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

First Advisor

Bernhard Riegl

Second Advisor

Dr. Robin Sherman

Third Advisor

Jose Lopez


White Band disease has devastated the staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis in recent decades, and it continues to impinge upon restoration efforts. The etiological agent(s) remain unknown as Koch’s postulates have yet to be satisfied, but disease may originate when opportunistic pathogens in the surface mucus layer exploit a stressed host. Using 16s rRNA sequencing, differences in the taxonomic diversity and relative abundances of bacteria within the mucus of A. cervicornis were documented between colonies of the same genotype, genotypes (n=8) categorized as having either high or low WBD susceptibility, and during a transplantation event. A. cervicornis colonies suspended from midwater PVC trees via monofilament were sampled for mucus, after which half of the sampled colonies were relocated to the unconsolidated sediments below. Temporal changes in the microbiome of the pelagic and benthic corals were then monitored by sampling the same apical tip over time. Incidentally, all benthic colonies for this experiment became afflicted with WBD; thereby differences in healthy vs. diseased colonies and the effects of disease progression on the microbiome were documented. Water was sampled concurrently with all mucus experiments to resolve the degree of commonality in bacterial species between the two environments, and sediments were sampled in the transplant experiment to determine if sediments may act as a pathogen reservoir. In addition, sediment samples were collected to assess site and temporal differences in the benthic microbiome along a nearshore to offshore transect off Key Largo, Florida. Irrespective of the inclusion of water operational taxonomic units (OTUs), no differences between colonies of the same genotype were observed with regards to the bacterial communities sampled from mucus in either alpha diversity metrics [species richness, Shannon, Inverse Simpson] or phylogenetic relatedness as determined by weighted unique fraction (UniFrac) were detected between colonies. However, differences were observed in the Bray-Curtis dissimiliarity matrices based on relative abundance and presence/absence of either [with and without water OTU] scenarios. Bacterial communities associated with different coral genotypes differed in species richness and Inverse Simpson in both water scenarios, as did weighted UniFrac and Bray-Curtis relative abundance and presence/absence transformed dissimilarity matrices. Alpha diversity of mucus bacteria was similar between corals of different disease-susceptibilities when water OTUs were either included or excluded, except for the Inverse Simpson index upon removal of water OTUs. Removal of aqueous bacteria also revealed significant differences between disease-susceptibility groups in Bray-Curtis relative abundance and presence/absence dissimiliarity values that was not detected with the incorporation of water OTUs. Regardless of the presence of water OTUs, weighted UniFrac was similar between corals of different disease susceptibilities. Most notably, dispersion increased in the microbiome of coral genotypes with high disease susceptibility in all cases except for the relative abundance transformed Bray-Curtis dissimilarity matrix when water OTUs were incorporated. This finding is in accordance with the Anna Karenina Principle, which states that loss of microbial regulation leads to an unpredictable microbiome in diseased individuals. In the sediment experiment, location was the only factor influencing microbiome composition. These findings may be due to the short duration of the experiment and differences between the carbonate content of the sediments and hydrological regimes between sites.