Dr Nicole Webster

Dr Nicole Webster

Senior Research Scientist
A Healthy & Resilient GBR

Contact Information

Phone (07) 4753 4151
Int +61-7-4753 4151
Email n.webster@aims.gov.au

Other Profiles

Google Scholar
Research Gate


Nicole obtained her PhD in 2001 by researching the microbial ecology of Great Barrier Reef sponges. Nicole undertook postdoctoral research between 2001-05 at the University of Canterbury / Gateway Antarctica where she investigated the utility of microbial symbionts as biomarkers for environmental stress in the Antarctic marine ecosystem and explored the role of microorganisms as inducers for settlement and metamorphosis of coral reef invertebrates. In 2005, Nicole commenced a research scientist position at AIMS undertaking research that assesses the impact of environmental stress on model invertebrate symbioses (primarily sponges and their microbial symbionts).

Nicole’s current vision is to establish ‘Microbial Contributions to Ecosystem Health’ as a priority research field for marine science.  In 2012 she was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship to commence research into ‘Revealing the structure, evolution and environmental sensitivity of symbioses in basal metazoa’.  This project involves assessing the impact of environmental stress on model invertebrate symbioses and determining the role of bacterial, archaeal and viral symbionts in the ability of reef invertebrates to adapt to a changing climate.


James Cook University / Australian Institute of Marine Science, 2001 PhD

James Cook University, 1995 Bachelor of Science, Honours (Class I)

James Cook University, 1994 Bachelor of Science


Australian Institute of Marine Science (2005-Present)

University of Canterbury / Gateway Antarctica (2001-2005)


2012 Future Fellowship (Australian Research Council)

2010 Australian Academy of Science Dorothy Hill Award

2010 Australian Academy of Science Rod Rickards International Fellow

2010 Queensland International Fellowship (Qld Government)

Microbial Symbiosis & Environmental Stress

The vulnerability of marine invertebrates to environmental stress has traditionally been assessed by determining how the host animal responds to particular environmental factors.  Over the past decade however, molecular science has uncovered an incredible diversity of marine microorganisms and highlighted the critical importance of these microbes to invertebrate health, fitness and ultimately survival.  If we are to provide accurate predictions of the sensitivity and vulnerability of reef organisms we therefore need to assess the stress response in both the host and its associated microbiota (holobiont).  Research within this program delivers stakeholders with knowledge of how temperature, ocean acidification, nutrient enrichment and increased sedimentation influence the functional roles of marine microbial symbionts within their hosts. In this research we move beyond measuring specific thresholds and attempt to forecast the long term consequences of climate change and environmental stress for invertebrate populations.

Microbial Contributions to Reef Invertebrate Adaptation

Significant declines in coral reef health and biological diversity are predicted for the coming decades unless coral reef organisms adapt or acclimatise to ever increasing levels of environmental pressure. CO2 vents provide natural laboratories where acclimatisation/adaptation to ocean acidification conditions projected for 2100 and beyond can be studied. In parallel, manipulative experiments in the AIMS SeaSimulator enable researchers to explore the adaptive capacity of many different reef organisms to the cumulative pressures of climate change and degraded water quality.  Recent experimental and field research is highlighting how some organisms such as corals and sponges can rapidly alter their microbial symbionts in response to future climate change conditions. This research program explores whether these symbiotic shifts influence the ability of the host to acclimatise/adapt to new environmental conditions.  For instance, favourable symbiotic shifts that enhance the scope for growth or infer environmental tolerance to the host may be passed to subsequent generations, enabling long term acclimatisation of these organisms. Understanding how microorganisms contribute to the acclimatisation/adaptation of the host is essential if we are to reliably predict the consequences of global change.

Reef Viruses

Viruses are the most abundant entities in the oceans (if stretched end-to-end they would span farther than the nearest 60 galaxies).  Viruses are found in coral reef seawater, eukaryotic hosts and their associated eukaryotic and prokaryotic symbionts.  Despite this, our understanding of the roles that viruses play in reef invertebrate health is limited. This study is funded by an ARC Future Fellowship and characterises sponge viromes and metagenomes, mapping viral populations to the sponge-specific microbial communities and exploring the complex interactions between each component of the sponge holobiont during thermal stress. Viral-mediated lateral gene transfer as a mechanism for climate adaptation is also being explored. This research will provide valuable insights into the environmental sensitivity of sponges, contributing to reef protection strategies.

Global Sponge Microbiome

Whilst the past decade has seen tremendous advances in our understanding of the phylogenetic diversity of sponge-associated microorganisms (more than 25 bacterial phyla have now been reported from sponges), our understanding of large-scale biogeographic patterns, environmental variance, symbiont acquisition and co-evolution has remained limited due to the single species/site nature of most studies. The aims of this global project led by Nicole Webster and Torsten Thomas are to elucidate the structure and evolution of sponge-microbial associations and determine how these relationships are influenced by their environment. This project involves a large team of international sponge scientists (over 25 scientists from more than 15 countries) and in-kind sequencing support from the Earth Microbiome Project to describe the microbial community of 3000 sponge samples which have been obtained along broad geographic regions, depth ranges, environments and developmental stages. This large-scale collaborative approach will facilitate the first global assessment of sponge microbiomes and address over-arching questions about sponge microbial symbioses.


Prof. Michael Wagner University of Vienna- Sponge Hologenomics- Unlocking the Ianthella basta symbiome

Assoc. Prof. Peta Clode- University of Western Australia- visualising the fate of dredge sediments in sponges using advanced imaging technology.

Prof. Thomas Rattei University of Vienna- Revealing the structure, evolution and environmental sensitivity of symbioses in basal metazoan

Prof. Tim Ravasi KAUST- Viromic, metagenomic and host transcriptomic response of the sponge Amphimedon queenslandica to thermal stress

Assoc. Prof. James Bell Victoria University- Coral reefs of today: Sponge Reefs of the future?

Assoc. Prof. Michael Taylor University of Auckland- Sponge symbiosis networks- host specificity, biogeography, environmental stress.

Associate Prof. Torsten Thomas University of NSW- The Global Sponge Microbiome Project

Assoc. Prof. Justin Seymour University of Technology Sydney- Microscale structure and function of coral reef bacterial communities

Dr Steve Whalan Southern Cross University- Sponge larval ecology & Modelling changes in sponge bioerosion under climate change


Board Member of the International Society for Microbial Ecology

Director of the ISME International Ambassador Program

Chair of the 9th World Sponge Conference Organising Committee

Member of the Australian Society of Microbiology

Member of the United Nations Pool of Experts for Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment

Chief Specialty Editor of Frontiers in Microbial Symbiosis

Editorial Board of Environmental Microbiology

Editor PLoS One


Adjunct Associate Professor at James Cook University

Graduated PhD students

Muhammad Abdul Wahab (AIMS@JCU - Sponge reproduction in a changing climate)

Heidi Luter (AIMS@JCU- Sponge disease)

Rachel Simister (Uni Auckland- Specificity of sponge symbiosis)

Chris Fan Lu (Uni NSW – Defining core functions in sponge symbiosis)

Raffaella Pantile (Uni Genoa- Defining environmental stress responses in marine sponges)

Currently enrolled PhD students

Florian Moeller (Uni Vienna- Sponge symbiotic function)

Jessica Tout (UTS- Structuring of coral reef microbial communities)

Holly Bennett (Victoria Uni - Modelling sponge community responses to climate change)

Christine Altenrath (AIMS@JCU- Assessing sponge holobiont responses to climate change)

Carmen Astudillo (Uni Auckland- Biogeography and specificity of sponge symbionts)

Brian Strehlow (Uni WA- WAMSI Dredging effects on filter feeders)

Cecilia Pascelli (JCU- Sponge-virus interactions in a changing climate)

Blake Ramsby (AIMS@JCU- Modelling changes in sponge bioerosion under climate change).

Postdoctoral fellows

Heidi Luter (Eutrophication and sponge symbiosis)

Mari Carmen Pineda (Defining filter feeder responses to dredging)

Patrick Laffy (Bioinformatic approaches to studying sponge viruses)


Over 130 scientific publications with over 6500 citations (http://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=nLT0VhIAAAAJ).

Most Recent 2018 Publications

Bell J, Bennett H, Rovellini A, Webster NS (2018) Can sponges soak up the effects of climate change and what will this mean for ecosystem function? Bioscience.

Pascelli C, Laffy PW, Kupresanin M, Ravasi T, Webster NS (2018) Morphological characterization of virus-like particles in coral reef sponges. Peer J.

Bell J, Rovellini A, Davy S, Taylor M, Fulton E, Dunn M, Bennett H, Kandler N, Luter H, Webster NS (2018) Climate change alterations to ecosystem dominance: How might sponge-dominated reefs function? Ecology 99(9): 1920-1931.

Ramsby BD, Hoogenboom MO, Smith H, Whalan S, Webster NS (2018) The bioeroding sponge Cliona orientalis will not tolerate future projected ocean warming. Scientific Reports 8(1): 8302.

Glasl B, Smith CE, Bourne DG, Webster NS (2018) Exploring the diversity-stability paradigm using sponge microbial communities. Scientific Reports 8(1): 8425.

Høj L, Levy N, Baillie BK, Clode PL, Strohmaier R, Siboni N, Webster NS, Uthicke S, Bourne DG (2018) Crown-of-thorns sea star, Acanthaster cf. solaris, has tissue-characteristic microbiomes with potential roles in health and reproduction. Applied and Environmental Microbiology DOI: 10.1128/AEM.00181-18.

Webster NS, Wagner M, Negri AP (2018) Microbial conservation in the Anthropocene. Environmental Microbiology 20(6): 1925-1928.

Laffy PW, Wood-Charlson EM, Turaev D, Pascelli C, Botté ES, Bell SC, Weynberg KD, van Oppen MJH, Rattei T, Webster NS (2018) Coral Reef Viromics: Diversity, Host-Specificity & Functional Capacity. Environmental Microbiology 20(6): 2125-2141.

Bennett H, Bell JJ, Davy SK, Webster NS, Francis DS (2018) Elucidating the sponge stress response; lipids and fatty acids can facilitate survival under future climate scenarios. Global Change Biology 24(7): 3130-3144.

Ramsby BD, Hoogenboom MO, Whalan S, Webster NS (2018) Elevated seawater temperature disrupts the microbiome of an ecologically important bioeroding sponge. Molecular Ecology 27(8): 2124-2137.

Glasl B, Bourne DG, Frade PR, Webster NS (2018) Establishing microbial baselines to identify indicators of coral reef health. Microbiology Australia 39(1): 42-46.