TSRC Town Talk: Dr. Forest Rohwer, "Making The Future For Coral Reefs (and Everyone Else)," 6/18

The Telluride Science Research Center hosts Dr. Forest Rohwer. His talk, titled “Making the Future for Coral Reefs (and Everyone Else),” continues a seven-week series of Town Talks presented by TSRC. The event takes place at the Telluride Conference Center in Mountain Village on Tuesday, June 17, 2019, 6:30 p.m. Admission is free; cash bar opens at 6 p.m. Each talk is followed by an interview and Q &A session moderated by Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning television correspondent and professor emerita of broadcast journalism at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, Judy Muller.

Dr. Forest Rohwer. Of coral reefs & cystic fibrosis at TSRC Town Talk.

Geological records indicate most coral reefs are about 500 million years old, dating back to the late Cambrian period; anatomically modern humans only appeared in the fossil record around 200,000 years ago.

A progressive, genetic disease known as cystic fibrosis was discovered just in past 100 years. The condition causes persistent lung infections and limits the victim’s ability to breathe over time. Cystic fibrosis can be deadly.

Interesting factoids, but could these three things – coral, humans, and a potentially deadly disease – be linked in any direct way?

Meet Dr. Forest Rohwer, winner of the Young Investigators Award and Telluride’s next speaker in the summer’s Town Talk series. Dr. Rohwer has dedicated his research to the nexus of coral reef restoration and cystic fibrosis.

Dr. Rohwer grew up very interested in science, but discovered his abiding passion for marine biology during his college days while on a scuba diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Concerned about the world’s diminishing coral population, Rohwer’s research soon lead him into the vast field of virus analysis known as “viromics”:

“Viruses are the most abundant biological entity out there, so if you think of biology as a numbers game, they’re actually winning. For the most part, the vast majority are not destructive from the human point of view. In actuality, we depend on the activity of viruses for a large number of ecosystem functions.”

The global challenge of coral reef decline is only getting worse due to a dramatic increase in overfishing and, of course, climate change affecting our oceans. However, Dr. Rohwer notes that viruses are also at play in the decline:

“What is making the situation worse at the moment are the viruses. When the oceans are warmer, or there is increased pollution, viruses become more pathogenic, which is very bad for coral reefs.”

As stated above, cystic fibrosis is an inherited human disease that causes a mucus, bacterial, and viral build-up in the lungs. So, the question remains: what overlap, if any, does Dr. Rohwer see between his two worlds of research?

“The connection is mucus. Any animal interacts with the environment via a mucus layer, such as that which exists in our lungs and gut. That’s true with coral too, even though they are about as far apart from us as you can be in an evolutionary sense. So, we are very interested in how viruses and mucosal surfaces work.”

Furthermore, Dr. Rohwer believes:

“Everybody is feeling or will feel the effects of microbialization, or an increased activity of viruses and microbes – and it doesn’t matter if you are or will ever be a victim of cystic fibrosis or if you ever visit a coral reef. It is one of the things that happens in our gut, so microbialization directly impacts all of us – though we are largely unaware of that fact of life. What’s more, the country’s obesity crisis is due in large part to a change in behavior between viruses and microbes.”

This month, Dr. Rohwer joins other distinguished scientists in Telluride to attend two of the TSRC’s summer workshops, one on cystic fibrosis and the other on microbial ecology, in order to share and advance his impactful research.

Dr. Rohwer and many medical professionals believe this research could be a catalyst in treating many other illnesses:

“We study cystic fibrosis because lots of other diseases behave very much like it. So, understanding how cystic fibrosis works in our system and how to treat it, should prove important to finding cures for other afflictions.”


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