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UGA Gets Grant to Study How Human Bug is Killing Coral

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A multidisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Georgia will use a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to fund next-generation genome sequencing-based research, along with other approaches, to study how a human pathogen may be devastating coral reefs in the Florida Keys and around the Caribbean.

The researchers seek to discover how a common human intestinal bacterium, Serratia marcescens, is ending up in coral reefs and causing white pox disease in Elkhorn coral.

"This bacterium has jumped from vertebrate to invertebrate, from terrestrial to marine, and from anaerobic to aerobic environments," James Porter, associate dean of the Odum School of Ecology at UGA said in a statement. "Triple jumps like this are rare," he added.

The research approach will involve studying the genetic diversity of the bacterium by inoculating fragments of coral with different strains and then watching which ones cause the white pox disease.

"If we can identify strains that do versus those that don't cause disease, we can then conduct genetic comparisons to isolate the genes that are responsible," explained Erin Lipp, an associate professor in UGA's College of Public Health.

The Georgia Genomics Facility at UGA will provide next-generation sequencing for the project, enabling the researchers to look more deeply into their marine microbe samples.

"For this study, we can study tens of thousands from each sample. It will be very powerful," John Wares, an assistant professor of genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement.

Studying not only the bacterium and the coral but also the range of microbes living around the reef is important because this coral does not rely on an internal immune system but on beneficial microbes in the environment for protection from disease.

"I'll be looking at what organisms are living on the coral and what role they play in promoting coral immunity," Wares said.

Understanding how the white pox functions and is transmitted will enable scientists to try to predict the impacts of the disease and to attempt to develop strategies for controlling it.

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