Rollins Professor Receives Five-Year NSF Grant to Study Disease Impacting Coral Reefs

July 30, 2010

katieAssistant Professor of Biology Katie Sutherland has been selected to receive one of nine awards from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Ecology of Infectious Diseases program for her research on the transmission of a human pathogen to elkhorn coral in the Florida Keys. The project, a collaboration with the University of Georgia, will investigate an emerging infectious disease phenomenon known as “reverse zoonosis,” in which diseases from humans infect wildlife, rather than the reverse. Sutherland’s NSF award is for $188,469.

Elkhorn coral was once the most common coral in the Caribbean. It is now designated as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, in large part due to population losses from white pox disease. Sutherland and her team have determined that white pox disease is caused by the common fecal bacterium Serratia marcescens and have recovered a unique strain of this bacterium from diseased corals, non-host corals, coral-eating snails and sewage. The strain, isolated from reef and sewage sources, establishes a definitive connection between human sewage and white pox disease of corals. This research marks the first time that a human disease has been shown to cause population declines of a marine invertebrate.

Since the most likely transmission pathway for the disease is via under-treated human sewage, this study will demonstrate the interaction between public health practices of wastewater disposal and environmental health indices such as coral reef survival. The team expects the results of this research to have a broad impact by addressing not only environmental factors but also the socio-ecological determinants of coastal zone protection, including the cost of wastewater treatment infrastructure. Such issues are of profound importance to coastal communities around the world.

The project is founded on Sutherland’s previous research, including recent work with Rollins student collaborators Sameera Shaban (Class of 2010), Trevor Luna ’09, and Brian Thomas ’07, funded in part through the Rollins Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program  and the Mote Marine Laboratory’s Protect Our Reefs Grants Program (supported by proceeds from the sale of the Protect Our Reefs specialty license plate). The National Science Foundation grant will provide five years of continuous research funding, including annual support for a Rollins undergraduate student to participate in field work in the Florida Keys and laboratory-based research on campus.

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