What's killing coral near Key West? Study points to human waste
Photos from research show the white blotches, caused by bacteria from waste, that appear on coral in the Florida Keys.
August 18th, 2011
11:01 AM ET

What's killing coral near Key West? Study points to human waste

Human feces making their way through wastewater facilities and into the ocean are passing along a white pox disease-causing bacterium that's killing Elkhorn coral near Key West, Florida, a new study says.

"These bacteria do not come from the ocean; they come from us," said James W. Porter, a University of Georgia ecology professor, adding that mankind has a responsibility to respond and save a massive area around the Florida Keys.

Porter and his colleagues say the study for the first time gives evidence of a new way of spreading diseases. Usually, bacteria are transmitted from wildlife to humans, for example, in the case of Avian flu. But here, the researchers' findings, which were published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, show that diseases can in some cases be passed on from humans and affect wildlife to the point where it causes a population decline.

When they began studying corals, researchers learned the bacterium Serratia marcescens was the cause of white pox. The bacterium is mostly associated with infections usually acquired in hospitals by newborns or immune-compromised adults. It can be responsible for a variety of infections, from meningitis to pneumonia.

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

Upgrades to these facilities under way in Key West are important, he said.

"This problem is not like hurricanes, which we can't control. We can do something about this one," Porter said.

The disease caused by the waste leads to white blotches on coral. The blotches appear when bacteria kills the top layer of coral tissue, exposing the white limestone skeleton of the coral.

"We are killing the goose that lays the golden egg, and we've got the smoking gun to prove it," Porter said.

soundoff (118 Responses)
  1. bobcat2u

    Sounds like a bunch of crap to me. Why the hell can't man live in harmony with our environment ? After all, humankind was given dominion over the entire earth, and all we do is destroy it. Before you all start saying that maybe I should leave this earth, believe me, if it were possible this side of offing myself, I would.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
    • chimpz

      just be quiet

      August 18, 2011 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
  2. ryq

    So we are literally shltting our corals to death. omg what else can we destroy, this is absurd.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
  3. Jay

    Just another way we cr@p on the environment.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
  4. rich

    another one of dim der liberal conspiracies...yee haw

    August 18, 2011 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
  5. observer

    I guess "bacteria from immune-compromised adults" might be more prevalent in Key West's waste water than elsewhere? Just sayin...

    August 18, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      FAIL, there are no blacks in Key west

      August 18, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
    • person

      "Just saying'" is a passive-aggressive way of implying something while pretending that you aren't. What exactly are you just saying?

      August 18, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
  6. Chad

    This is really sad, the Keys are the only true coral reef in the U.S. and coral reefs provide a habitat for over 90% of life in the oceans. The saddest part is that no one will care about this, even though it's exactly the same as if we started filling the Grand Canyon with human crap. Maybe humans don't deserve to survive any longer since we seem to have such a negative effect on all life around us. Maybe it's a good thing our political and economic chaos is threatening to destroy civilization as we know it.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
  7. Charles Montgomery "Monty" Burns

    Oooh, so Mother Nature needs a favor?! Well maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys! Nature started the fight for survival, and now she wants to quit because she’s losing. Well I say, hard cheese.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • bobcat2u

      So what you are saying is we should go out of our way to destroy the earth to pay back mother nature for the floods and droughts and earthquakes and whatever else she canthrow at us ?!? That has got to be one of the most stupid statements I've ever seen.

      August 18, 2011 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
    • dender

      monty – that was hands down the most illogical statement on the board. God knows what will happen when we lose coral reefs – the worst imaginable is that fish population drop precipitously, decreasing all other species population (including our own) with it.

      August 18, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Duff Man

      What's even funnier to Duff Man is that even though the guys name is "Monty" Burns from the Simpsons you fools don't realize what he posted was just an appropriately place direct quote.

      August 18, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Uraluni

      Burns: Some men hunt for sport,
      Others hunt for food,
      The only thing I'm hunting for,
      Is an outfit that looks good...

      See my vest, see my vest,
      Made from real gorilla chest,
      Feel this sweater, there's no better,
      Than authentic Irish setter.

      See this hat, 'twas my cat,
      My evening wear – vampire bat,
      These white slippers are albino
      African endangered rhino.

      Grizzly bear underwear,
      Turtles' necks, I've got my share,
      Beret of poodle, on my noodle
      It shall rest,

      Try my red robin suit,
      It comes one breast or two,
      See my vest, see my vest,
      See my vest.

      Like my loafers? Former gophers –
      It was that or skin my chauffeurs,
      But a greyhound fur tuxedo
      Would be best,

      So let's prepare these dogs,

      Mrs. Potts: Kill two for matching clogs,

      Burns: See my vest, see my vest,
      Oh please, won't you see my vest

      August 18, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. PulTab

    So what else is new. Why don't we just kill everything and pave over the world. Maybe then the tea baggers will be happy.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • bobcat2u

      We raze paradise, and put up a parking lot !!!! ooooooh whop whop whop whop

      August 18, 2011 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |

    Human to animal diseases causing population decline has happened many times before. Like with the Europeans and the Indians.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      We have a lot more to lose in this case.

      August 18, 2011 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Christine

      This was rather poorly worded and may lead to inflammatory responses by implying that Indians are non-human animals. A human is a human, no matter of origin, skin color, size, religion. At the same time, we are all animals, from the smallest bug to the human and I agree that we, humans, are the only animals trying to kill everything alive, including ourselves.

      August 18, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  10. Joe

    Two corrections. "Bacteria" is plural, so your sentences starting "Usually bacteria is..." and "The bacteria is..." shows you have no clue about bacteria. Also avian flu is a viral disease, not a bacterial disease. Please hire a science writer or proof reader. Note that Serratia marcescens rarely causes any human infections.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Red

      Joe: Thanks–I was just about to go nuts over that one but you beat me to it 🙂

      August 18, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
  11. kolagad

    Looks like you people eat your own poop, so it doesn't go down into waste water.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  12. Bro

    If I (or an industry–like an evil oil company) killed coral I/we would be fined by the Fed Government. Why are these towns spilling waste into the oceans being fined?

    August 18, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  13. Carter Sherline

    The problem is most people won't believe this study...they'll say it is a liberal conspiracy. Really stupidity is a conservative conspiracy. What seemed like a good idea in the past is often found to be a bad idea when more is learned and changes have to be made...oh ya, that's the definition of liberal thought.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  14. American Hero

    The immigrants from india may have went swimming in the ocean and some of their nastiness got into the water. That is just my scientific theory.

    August 18, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  15. shishta

    Just remember when your swimming on that beach how much doo doo bacteria is in that water 🙂

    August 18, 2011 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
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