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Human Pathogen Shown to Cause Disease in the Threatened Eklhorn Coral

Human Pathogen Shown to Cause Disease in the Threatened Eklhorn Coral Acropora palmata

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Kathryn Patterson Sutherland1*, Sameera Shaban1, Jessica L. Joyner2, James W. Porter3, Erin K. Lipp4

1 Department of Biology, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, United States of America, 2 Odum School of Ecology and Department of Environmental Health Science, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, United States of America, 3 Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, United States of America, 4 Department of Environmental Health Science, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, United States of America

Abstract Top

Coral reefs are in severe decline. Infections by the human pathogen Serratia marcescens have contributed to precipitous losses in the common Caribbean elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata, culminating in its listing under the United States Endangered Species Act. During a 2003 outbreak of this coral disease, called acroporid serratiosis (APS), a unique strain of the pathogen, Serratia marcescens strain PDR60, was identified from diseased A. palmata, human wastewater, the non-host coral Siderastrea siderea and the corallivorous snail Coralliophila abbreviata. In order to examine humans as a source and other marine invertebrates as vectors and/or reservoirs of the APS pathogen, challenge experiments were conducted with A. palmata maintained in closed aquaria to determine infectivity of strain PDR60 from reef and wastewater sources. Strain PDR60 from wastewater and diseased A. palmata caused disease signs in elkhorn coral in as little as four and five days, respectively, demonstrating that wastewater is a definitive source of APS and identifying human strain PDR60 as a coral pathogen through fulfillment of Koch’s postulates. A. palmata inoculated with strain PDR60 from C. abbreviata showed limited virulence, with one of three inoculated fragments developing APS signs within 13 days. Strain PDR60 from non-host coral S. siderea showed a delayed pathogenic effect, with disease signs developing within an average of 20 days. These results suggest that C. abbreviata and non-host corals may function as reservoirs or vectors of the APS pathogen. Our results provide the first example of a marine “reverse zoonosis” involving the transmission of a human pathogen (S. marcescens) to a marine invertebrate (A. palmata). These findings underscore the interaction between public health practices and environmental health indices such as coral reef survival.

Citation: Sutherland KP, Shaban S, Joyner JL, Porter JW, Lipp EK (2011) Human Pathogen Shown to Cause Disease in the Threatened Eklhorn Coral Acropora palmata. PLoS ONE 6(8): e23468. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023468

Editor: Steve Vollmer, Northeastern University, United States of America

Received: February 28, 2011; Accepted: July 18, 2011; Published: August 17, 2011

Copyright: © 2011 Sutherland et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Funding: This research was supported by Mote Marine Laboratory Protect Our Reefs grant POR-2008-23 (www.mote.org) to KPS and EKL, the Rollins College Student-Faculty Collaborative Research Program and Edward W. and Stella C. Van Houten Memorial Fund to SS and KPS, and by a Rollins College Critchfield Research Grant (www.rollins.edu) to KPS. Additional partial support was provided by National Science Foundation (NSF) grants EF-1015032 to KPS and EF-1015342 to JWP and EKL as part of the joint NSF-National Institutes of Health Ecology of Infectious Disease program (www.nsf.org) and by the US Environmental Protection Agency South Florida Water Quality Protection Program (www.epa.gov) to JWP. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

* E-mail: kpsutherland@rollins.edu

 

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