UGA Researchers to Study Transmission of Human Pathogen to Coral Reefs
October 20, 2010
The spread of lethal diseases from animals to humans has long been an issue of great concern to public health officials. But what about diseases that spread in the other direction, from humans to wildlife? A multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Georgia has just been awarded a five-year $2 million Ecology of Infectious Diseases grant from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to study the first known case of such a "reverse zoonosis" that involves the transmission of a human pathogen to a marine invertebrate, elkhorn coral.
White pox disease has devastated coral reefs throughout the Caribbean and Florida Keys, and is believed to be responsible for much of the coral reef loss there since 1996. White pox disease is caused by a human strain of the common intestinal bacterium Serratia marcescens, which causes the hospital infection serratiosis. Historically, many emerging human diseases, such as AIDS and Ebola, have come from the natural world. The researchers are concerned that the transmission of Serratia marcescens from humans to elkhorn coralmay indicate the beginning of a new phenomenon of diseases jumping from humans to wildlife.
The UGA team will investigate the mechanisms of transmission of white pox disease and the factors that drive its emergence in marine animals. "This bacterium has jumped from vertebrate to invertebrate, from terrestrial to marine, and from anaerobic to aerobic environments," said James W. Porter, associate dean of the Odum School of Ecology and the team's leader. "Triple jumps like this are rare." Understanding the modes of transmission will allow the scientists to attempt to predict future impacts of the disease and to begin to develop effective control strategies.
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