Human Waste Killing Caribbean Coral

BY Jenny Marder  December 19, 2011 at 2:00 PM EDT

The bright orange Elkhorn coral off the coast of Florida have been devastated by a disease that scientists have tracked to human sewage.

Elkhorn coral was at one time the most common coral in the Caribbean, but has declined by 90 percent over the last 15 years and is now an endangered species. Among the many factors contributing to its decline is a disease known as white pox, caused by Serratio marcescens, a common fecal intestinal bacteria found in the guts of many humans and other animals, including seagulls, Key deer and cats.

After identifying the pathogen responsible for White Pox disease, Sutherland’s team designed an investigation to determine its source. Research shows that it’s most likely entering the water via leaking septic tanks, causing a 90 percent decline in coral in some areas.

“This is the first example of a human pathogen infecting a marine organism,” said Kathryn Sutherland of Rollins College.

Miles O’Brien reports on the story for the National Science Foundation’s* Science Nation.

For the record, the National Science Foundation is an underwriter of the NewsHour.