Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Marine Science

Major Professor

Mya Breitbart, Ph.D.

Committee Member

John Paul, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Larry Dishaw, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Peter Medveczky, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Thierry Work, DVM


Animal virus, Viral metagenomics, Whole-genome sequencing, Serology


Diseases in marine animals are emerging at an increasing rate. Disease forecasting enabled by virus surveillance presents a proactive solution for managing emerging diseases. Broad viral surveys aid in disease forecasting by providing baseline data on viral diversity associated with various hosts, including many that are not associated with disease. However, these viruses can become pathogens due to expansion in host or geographic range, as well as when changing conditions shift the balance between commensal viruses and the host immune system. Therefore, it is extremely valuable to identify and characterize viruses present in many different hosts in a variety of environments, regardless of whether the hosts are symptomatic or not.

The lack of a universal gene shared by all viruses makes virus surveillance difficult, because no single assay exists that can detect the enormous diversity of viruses. Viral metagenomics circumvents this issue by purifying viral particles directly from host tissues and sequencing the nucleic acids, allowing for virus identification. However, virus identification is only the first step, which should ideally be followed by complete sequencing of the viral genome to identify genes of interest and develop assays to reveal viral prevalence, tropism, ecology, and pathogenicity. This dissertation focuses on the discovery of novel viruses in marine animals, characterization of complete viral genomes, and the development of subsequent diagnostic assays for further analysis of virus ecology.

First, viral metagenomics was used to explore the viruses present in the healthy Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) population in Antarctica, which led to the discovery of highly prevalent small, circular single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) viruses. The lack of knowledge regarding the viruses of Antarctic wildlife warrants this study to determine baseline viral communities in healthy animals that can be used to survey changes over time. From the healthy Weddell seals, viral metagenomics led to the discovery of 152 novel anellovirus genomes, encompassing two anellovirus species. Characterizing these viruses is important for understanding the prevalence and diversity of ssDNA viruses, which have only recently been described in marine animals. Furthermore, since emerging diseases can be caused by changing conditions affecting host susceptibility to a virus that was previously not related to disease (opportunistic pathogen), having baseline data allows for quick identification of the pathogen.

In addition to determining baseline data, viral metagenomics can explore the role of viruses in disease. A novel virus, Asterias forbesi-associated circular virus (AfaCV), was discovered in the Atlantic sea star Asterias forbesi displaying symptoms of sea star wasting disease (SSWD). AfaCV was the first circular replicase-encoding ssDNA (CRESS-DNA) virus discovered in echinoderms, but it was only present in 10% of SSWD sea stars indicating it is not involved in the development of the disease.

This dissertation also focuses on elucidating the role of two previously characterized viruses, chelonid fibropapillomatosis-associated herpesvirus (CHHV5; Chelonid herpesvirus 5, ChHV5) and Zalophus californianus anellovirus (ZcAV), in animal health. PCR amplicon sequencing was used to obtain large portions of the 132 kb genome of ChHV5, the putative etiological agent of the neoplastic sea turtle disease, fibropapillomatosis. Obtaining the genome of ChHV5 from Florida green, Kemp’s ridley, and loggerhead sea turtles provides data for phylogenetic analysis across geographic locations and sea turtle species, as well as a reference for designing downstream molecular assays to examine viral latency.

ZcAV was first described from the lungs of captive sea lions involved in a mortality event. PCR could not detect ZcAV in the blood of infected animals, and since sea lions are a protected species, it is not possible to obtain lung biopsies from live sea lions to determine ZcAV prevalence or its role in sea lion health. To answer these important questions, an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was developed to detect antibodies to ZcAV in serum from wild sea lion populations. This newly developed ELISA showed that sea lions mount an immune response to ZcAV, and was used to determine the prevalence of ZcAV among wild sea lion populations.

This dissertation makes an important contribution to marine science through discovery and characterization of viruses present in healthy and diseased marine animals. Several different methods were used for virus whole-genome sequencing including viral metagenomics, PCR amplicon sequencing, and target enrichment. These findings were expanded upon by developing and using PCR assays and a serological assay to screen for virus prevalence. These methods have implications for viral surveillance and understanding the role of novel viruses in animal health.