Assistant Professor of Biology Katie Sutherland has been selected to receive one of nine awards from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Ecology of Infectious Diseases program for her research on the transmission of a human pathogen to elkhorn coral in the Florida Keys. The project, a collaboration with the University of Georgia, will investigate an emerging infectious disease phenomenon known as “reverse zoonosis,” in which diseases from humans infect wildlife, rather than the reverse. Sutherland’s NSF award is for $188,469.
Elkhorn coral was once the most common coral in the Caribbean. It is now designated as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, in large part due to population losses from white pox disease. Sutherland and her team have determined that white pox disease is caused by the common fecal bacterium Serratia marcescens and have recovered a unique strain of this bacterium from diseased corals, non-host corals, coral-eating snails and sewage. The strain, isolated from reef and sewage sources, establishes a definitive connection between human sewage and white pox disease of corals. This research marks the first time that a human disease has been shown to cause population declines of a marine invertebrate.
The award, part of NSF’s Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) program, is intended to facilitate research by faculty at predominantly undergraduate institutions and encourage educational opportunities for undergraduate students. The award marks the second RUI grant for Moore since 2007, and will support the involvement of several Rollins students, as well as Sarah Zietlow ’06, a local high school physics teacher, in collaborative research taking place on campus.
The project, which investigates the underlying physical phenomena of musical instruments, has proven a successful way to introduce students to important and original scientific research through a subject that most find fascinating. Rollins undergraduates who have been part of Moore’s ongoing research have benefited tremendously from the experience, appearing as co-authors on peer-reviewed publications and presenting their work at national and international conferences. Most have gone on to pursue graduate school or careers in the sciences.