Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Marine Science

Major Professor

Larry J. Dishaw, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Mya Breitbart, Ph.D.

Committee Member

John Paul, Ph.D.

Committee Member

John P. Cannon, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Kristen Buck, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Gary W. Litman, Ph.D.


Ciona, bacteriophage, innate immunity, microbiome, prophage, biofilm


Marine animals live and thrive in a literal sea of microorganisms, yet are often able to maintain specific associations that are largely dictated by the environment, host immunity and microbial interactions. Animal-associated microbiomes include bacteria and viruses that vastly outnumber host cells, especially in the gut environment, and are considered to be integral parts of healthy, functioning animals that act as a metaorganism. However, the processes underlying the initial establishment of these microbial communities are not very well understood. This dissertation focuses on the establishment of a well-known developmental animal model, Ciona intestinalis (sea squirt), to study the establishment and maintenance of a stable gut microbiome.

Generation of a new model for studying microbial colonization of the gut requires the ability to rear Ciona in the absence of microbes (i.e., germ-free). This dissertation describes the establishment of a germ-free technique for rearing Ciona and the methods utilized for bacterial exposure and colonization. Additionally, to determine the spatial structure of the gut microbiome, viral and bacterial communities within the three main gut compartments (stomach, midgut, hindgut) of Ciona from San Diego, CA, were assessed. The viral community was dominated by phages (viruses infecting bacteria), and numerous prophages (phages integrated into bacterial genomes) matching sequences found in bacteria belonging to the Ciona microbiome were detected within the active viral fraction. To determine the prevalence of prophages within the Ciona microbiome, a total of 70 bacteria cultured from the gut were tested, and 22 isolates were found to possess inducible prophages. When co-cultured with other bacteria, these induced prophages were capable of lytic infection of other members of the microbiome, often exhibiting broad host ranges.

The dynamic interactions of gut bacteria and phages were explored further with the isolation and characterization of a novel Shewanella phage-host system from the adult Ciona gut. Lytic phage infection resulted in an increase in biofilm formation correlating with the release of extracellular DNA, a process that was also observed to a lesser degree in control cultures as a result of spontaneous prophage induction. Furthermore, addition of the Ciona immune protein VCBP-C to static cultures of this Shewanella sp. 3313 also enhanced biofilm formation; a similar phenomenon was noted in another bacteria, a Pseudoalteromonas sp. 6751. Interestingly, both of these isolates contained inducible prophages and binding of the VCBP-C protein to these lysogenic strains was found to influence prophage induction in vitro. Colonization of the gut in vivo also correlated with differential up-regulation of VCBP-C expression in germ-free animals and a subsequent induction of prophages.

This dissertation makes an important contribution to the symbiosis field by developing a new model system in which novel aspects of host-microbe interactions can be investigated. The discovery that an innate immune effector can influence bacterial biofilms and result in the induction of prophages capable of lytic infection of other co-occurring bacteria reveals a previously unrecognized intersection between secretory immune molecules and phages in shaping the microbiome. These findings establish Ciona as a relevant and tractable model for studying trans-kingdom interactions during colonization of the gut epithelium.