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Transmission of Human Pathogen to Coral Reefs to be Studied by UGA Researchers

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
(UGA) has just been awarded a 5-year USD 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
coral may 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.

The scope of the team's research will extend beyond gaining an
understanding of the impact of white pox disease on elkhorn coral and
how to counter it. The most likely source of the pathogen for coral
reefs is under-treated human sewage, so the study will also explore
the intersection of public health practices and environmental health
outcomes.
 
 

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