Death of Coral in the Keys linked to human waste run-off.

by | Aug 18, 2011 | Corals, Science | 0 comments

Bleached CoralIn a recent study, published in a top scientific journal, a group of researchers from Florida and Georgia have documented damage to sensitive Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) from bacteria contained in human wastes. In the paper by Sutherland et al, published in PLOS One, the group identify the common bacteria Serratia marcescens as the culprit. In humans this is generally considered to be non- to mildly pathogenic and is often seen in homes and moist environments as a pink to reddish growth or stain around water sources such as faucets. In some cases human infections are caused and these include urinary tract infection and sometimes more severe diseases as pneumonia and meningitis in immune compromised, or otherwise ill, individuals.
With regard to the coral reef in the Florida Keys where this study was performed, human wastewater that is insufficiently cleaned and decontaminated is leaching this bacteria into the environment. Using a combin ation of studies from the field, and experiments in the laboratory, the group shows that some types of the Serratia bacteria are able to survive in excess of 20 days floating in the sea water- but can infect, colonize and persist for long periods in tissue of Acropora palmata leading to localized bleaching. Separately, using DNA identification techniques akin to those used in forensics, they have also shown that diseased corals in the wild are colonized by bacteria known to be present in the wastewater- clearly establishing the human connection. In addition, they provide evidence to suggest that once colonization occurs, the bacteria can persist on the reef in an asymptomatic state in other coral tissue and may potentially lead to infection at a later date.
The manuscript is an interesting read that can be understood by most laypersons. Its conclusions are chilling though. We, as humans, need to take note that we can no longer treat our local environment in such a poor way. The results of this study should be used as a call for further improvements in waste water treatment beyond those already instituted by the State of Florida and pressure should be made to bear on other nations dumping waste into the Caribbean and other coral containing seas and oceans.

  • Paul Whitby

    Paul Whitby is originally from the UK, but now resides in Oklahoma USA. While in the UK, he received his Doctorate in the microbiology of fish diseases, specifically diseases of fish with high economic importance and has published several articles in this field as well as medical microbiology. Currently he is an Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma where he specializes in the microbiology of pediatric infectious diseases. Paul is the current President of the Central Oklahoma Marine Aquarium Society (COMAS) and has had several articles published in Reefs Magazine, Reef Keeping magazine and and ReefBuilders. He has published several articles on COMAS, the development of a captive propagation program to conserve coral species, pests and parasites in marine aquaria as well as numerous reviews. In October 2007 his SPS dominated display tank was selected as Reef Keeping Magazine's Tank of the Month. Paul has presented several marine aquarium related seminars at local clubs and conferences including Oklahoma's CRASE, Reef Fest, ReefStock, NERAC, IMAC west and others. In association with his good friend Ed Brookshire, Paul owns He has been keeping saltwater aquariums for over 22 years and has owned a variety of tanks ranging from under 30 to in excess of 600 gallons. His current system, including filtration, is over 1,000 gallons.


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