Human Sewage Responsible for “Threatened” Status of Caribbean Elkhorn Coral

Written by on August 22, 2011 in Marine Life

Emily Tripp
Senior Writer

The cause of white pox disease of Caribbean elkhorn coral has finally been revealed.  A group of researchers from Rollins College in Florida and the University of Georgia has determined that human sewage is responsible for this fatal pathogen.  Their study was recently published in PLoS ONE.

Elkhorn coral used to be one of the most common coral in the Caribbean but was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2006.

“When we identified Serratia marcescens as the cause of white pox, we could only speculate that human waste was the source of the pathogen because the bacterium is also found in the waste of other animals,” said Kathryn P. Sutherland, associate professor of biology at Rollins College.  She and her collaborators, Associate Professor of Environmental Health Science Erin K. Lipp and University of Georgia Professor of Ecology James W. Porter have known since 2002 that the bacterium that killed the coral was also found in humans.

Elkhorn coral from Key Largo, FL. Photo Credit: Jim Stuby.

Elkhorn coral from Key Largo, FL. Photo Credit: Jim Stuby.

The research team analyzed samples from the wastewater treatment facility in Key West in addition to samples from local animals like Key deer and seagulls.  The strain found in the diseased coral was the same as that found in human sewage.

After additional testing in controlled environments, Southerland explains that “The strain caused disease in elkhorn coral in five days, so we now have definitive evidence that humans are a source of the pathogen that causes this devastating disease of corals.”

“These bacteria do not come from the ocean, they come from us,” said Porter.  This is the first time that a human disease has been responsible for population declines of marine invertebrates.

“Bacteria from humans kill corals-that’s the bad news,” said Porter.  “But the good news is that we can solve this problem with advanced wastewater treatment facilities.”

“This problem is not like hurricanes, which we can’t control.  We can do something about this one,” he said.  Already, the entire Florida Keys is upgrading local wastewater treatment plants to prevent this from continuing.

Copyright ©  2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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