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. beezy

    ITS POOP. COME ON. Everybody and everything poops. Jesus. Now we can't poop because its killing coral? Evil humans and their pooping ways... why cant we be like all the other awesome animals that never fight or poop. Everything would be so much better.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Prince John

      Or we could...I don't know...not dump it into the ocean?

      August 18, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sea Save Inc.

    After living in Key West and seeing the differance for myself the coral reefs are dying. Human fecies were found in the membranes of anemonies years ago. With the over collection of Marine fish, inverts and corals along with all the other issues are killing our oceans. I would not be surprised if it turns into another "DEAD ZONE" just like Lousianna and spreads to the rest of the worlds oceans. What comes around, goes around.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Death Wish

      I think it is dumb to kill coral butt hell it probubly helps, hell idk im just on here talking because im board as hell.

      August 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • PayBacksAreAYou

      Payback for the amoeba that killed those 2 kids.

      August 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. humtake

    If coral was meant to endure us, it would grow opposable thumbs and an external excrement organ and then defecate on us. But, that's just not the way nature intended it, so why put it in an article?

    August 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Me

      You are an idiot!

      August 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • inglebery humperdink

      yeah coral is totally worthless – except when it keeps building reefs which act as completely free break walls protecting places that humans deem valuable. kill all the coral & the keys go with them. and hurricanes hit the Gulf coast at full strength. and biodiversity drops drastically (bye bye sport fishing & seafood). you're right, this article is pointless & will never impact us humans

      August 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Onewhocares90

      Coral is at the bottom of the food chain and when we destroy coral we destroy the food chain. Not only is coral vital for many marine species and the ecosystems, humans also use coral for everything from food, to medicine, jobs, etc. And we don't even know all of the advantages of having coral yet and we won't get to know because we are destroying it so quickly. And coral has done more good for this planet then animal with "opposable thumbs and an external excrement organ" ever has. So this article is well worth everyone's time.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Put the coral in my tank instead!

      August 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • lisaspups

      Humtake: Judging by the ignorance of your comment, you are not an authority and should not be commentng on something you obviously do not understand.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Anomic Office Drone

    Add the Florida Keys to the list of places places where I am actively avoiding being in the water.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jeffanie

    Is this study supported by BP / Deepwater to direct fault from their involvement in destroying the gulf and surrounding areas...?

    August 18, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Adam

    This is a good avenue for researchers to follow. Clearly, humans have had large impacts on the earth. How could we not at over 6 billion? However, I really need to point out a significant flaw in this article, that as a microbiologist I can't allow. The avian flu is NOT a bacteria. It is a virus. This is a critical distinction. They are not the same thing. The flu, avian, swine, the flu – is the influenza VIRUS. Please, please, please – if you are going to write an article about science and try to reword it to make it easier for those who do not study the field, make sure you get the basic information correct. These types of errors confuse people, and can cause difficulties in the future regarding communication with doctors and medical professionals. Bacteria can be treated with medicine (most of the time) with an array of antibiotics. Viruses, for the most part, cannot. There are antivirals, but not as many.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve

      an important distinction, for sure, however the point the author was trying to get across was successful.

      while avain flu surely isn't a virus, the reader can match up that "oh, yeah, animal (wildlife)->human, i get that"

      August 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jouko

    "Usually, bacteria is transmitted from wildlife to humans, for example, in the case of Avian flu."

    1. Bacteria is plural.
    2. Avian flu is a virus.

    If you let the interns write the articles, at least heck their work before publication.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • J

      I'll be sure to heck every thing they produce. Heck, everything everyone produces. We're going to heck in a hand cart

      August 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  8. palintwit

    ...mmmmmm... septic tank. Yummy !

    August 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Eric

    I like coral and it is probably an important part of this ecosystem, but "killing the goose that lays the golden egg" is the wrong metaphor.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. rschier

    Hindi doodooo is the tastiest

    August 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. RUFFNUT T

    that's a whole lotta pooopy

    August 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Shame

    Way to go Obama

    August 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ART

    Someone please let Rick Perry know that there are consequences on the enviroment by humans, he seems to be unaware or just ignorant.Oh I get it he just a dumb republican.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Steve

    Good we are deserve to die for being lazy and ignorant

    August 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  15. CSnord

    Looks like we just need to kill off the human race.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
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