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Viral and bacterial pathogens in water and seafood are major sources of infection and disease globally. Fecal or “enteric” pathogens are associated with human and animal fecal contamination and include norovirus and adenovirus whereas indigenous marine pathogens are found naturally in estuarine and coastal environments, with Vibrio sp. such as V. vulnificus, V. parahaemolyticus, and V. cholera being of greatest concern, especially considering rates of infections by these organisms are increasing globally, resulting from warmer waters due to climate change. Vibrio infections are some of the most deadly and costly of food- and water-borne diseases. These pathogens, whether contributed to coastal waters from leaking sewage infrastructure, stormwater and non-pointsource runoff, or naturally found, cause losses in billions of dollars (USD) due to medical costs from both primary and secondary infection, lost employee work days, tourism losses (including those for beaches, hotels, restaurants), and adverse economic impacts on shellfish and seafood.

The Noble Lab is currently working on two projects related to Vibrio pathogens and their impact on public health and shellfish harvesting:

1. Revolutionizing and commercializing rapid molecular diagnostics for viral and bacterial pathogen quantification in marine waters and seafood

In the coming decade, three major industries: clinical diagnostics, water quality, and food security, will be revolutionized by rapid molecular diagnostics (MDx).  Rapid MDx are revolutionizing these sectors because of low time-to-results (<2 hours as compared to ~24 hours for even the fastest traditional microbiology kits), high specificity, and increased accuracy. There is worldwide demand for accurate quantification of viral and bacterial pathogens in both water and seafood. This project will use advanced, proprietary, metagenomic analyses to produce new, commercially-relevant, MDx specific for marine waters and seafood.  The project will begin with comparative analyses of disease-causing bacterial (e.g.Vibrio) pathogens as well as analyses for enteric (stemming from fecal contamination) viral and bacterial pathogens. These will originate from known pathogen-containing samples, as well as ambient coastal waters and shellfish.  Concomitant to this game-changing research objective will be intellectual property protection, market analyses for commercial product launch, and commercialization of globally relevant, user-friendly kits with that are validated and regulatory approved. This commercialization project, combined with the Molecular Training Facility already in existence at the Institute of Marine Sciences, will solidly place NC as a leader in the MDx market for water and food quality testing.

This project is funded by UNC Research Opportunities Initiative (UNC ROI).

2. Understanding the Public Health Risk Associated with Under Dock Oyster Culture and Aquaculture Activities in the Estuarine Waters of North Carolina

North Carolina encourages the recreational (i.e. not intended for profit) cultivation of “oyster gardens” through the Under Dock Oyster Culture (UDOC) Program. This program, in place since 2004, is overseen by the NC Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF).  It permits private property owners to attach 90 square feet of oyster aquaculture containers to their pier or dock. While the oysters used in this program provide ecosystem services, the ultimate goal is the private growth and harvest of oysters for personal consumption. Because these oysters are grown on private property and are not sold, there is no regulated “season” when they can be harvested.  These UDOC oysters are grown from provided seed, are shaded by the docks, often have high boat traffic, are affected by residential operations (pets, gardening, septic, etc), and the growers have little training and few harvesting regulations.  All factors which could influence the number and type of pathogenic Vibrio spp. the oysters are harboring, or increase the number consumed by the amateur farmers.  This project will monitor UDOC oyster farms and determine the concentration and potential for infection of the Vibrio contained in the shellfish.  This project also aims to educate both amateur oyster growers, and the agency that oversees permitting, about what dangers may exist.  And finally a predictive model will provide an early warning for those days when at-home oyster harvesting may not be recommended.  This project and these advances will coalesce into the triad of UNDERSTAND-PREDICT-INFORM that will lead to a reduction of seafood borne illness in NC that may result from amateur oyster aquaculture.

This project is funded by NC Sea Grant.