Since 2009, her team had been traveling to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. In some spots, they exposed the corals to nitrogen and phosphorus, to simulate the agricultural runoffs that often pollute these reefs. In other areas, they used wire mesh to keep fish away, mimicking the effects of overfishing. They wanted to know if these sources of stress disrupt the relationship between the corals and the trillions of microbes that live with them—and whether these disruptions lead to the corals’ demise.
Scientists have conducted hundreds of similar studies in humans. They compare healthy and sick people and look for differences in their microbiomes—the vast community of bacteria and other microbes that share our bodies. They aren’t looking for a specific disease-causing bug, like the ones behind classic infections like plague, leprosy, or tuberculosis. Instead, they’re looking for imbalances, where certain species rise to the fore, others slink into obscurity, and the entire community changes for the worse.
That’s what Vega Thurber expected to find in the corals. But that’s not what her postdoc Jesse Zaneveld found when he analyzed the results. The extra nutrients and the missing fish both changed the coral microbiomes—but not in any consistent ways. “It was a pretty dark day after three years of work,” says Vega Thurber. “A lot of students would have thrown up their hands and cried a bit. But Jesse said: You know what, I think I see something strange. It’s a pattern but one we didn’t predict.”
The microbiomes of the stressed corals had become more varied. They didn’t shift in any particular direction—they changed in every direction. And shortly after Zaneveld realized this, he spotted the same pattern—but this time in chimpanzees. Researchers at Yale University had studied the gut microbiomes of chimps that were infected with an HIV-like virus, and found that their microbiomes had also become more variable. [Continue reading…]