By Randolph E. Schmid
Washington---Bacteria found in the intestines of humans and other
animals have been identified as the cause of a disease killing elkhorn
coral in the Caribbean Sea.
First reported in 1996, the disease has spread widely, causing severe
damage to the branched corals.
On some reefs near Key West, mortality of elkhorn coral has reached 95%,
and the disease has been recorded in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Caribbean
areas of Mexico, the Bahamas and Florida, said James W. Porter of the
University of Georgia.
Porter and his research team traced the white pox disease that causes
the problem to Serrate marcescens bacteria, which are widely found in
the intestines of humans and other animals.
The findings are reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
"Elkhorn used to be the commonest coral in the Caribbean, but now it has
been proposed for inclusion on the endangered species list," Porter
said. "Elkhorn coral is the giant redwood of the coral forest."
Asked how the bacteria got to the coral, he responded" "We don't know...
We are investigating the possibility that the origin of the bacteria is
human waste, but we don't know."
That is a crucial question in the Florida Keys, where most waste is
treated in septic fields rather than undergoing extensive treatment to
kill the bacteria.
"The implications for people in the Florida Keys are high," Porter
said. Discussions are under way into improving wastewater treatment, he
said, "but it costs a lot and state and federal help are not assured."
The city of Key West, the largest in the Keys, last October opened a $67
million upgrade of its wastewater collection system and a new advanced
treatment plant, city spokesman Andy Newman said. Major hotels also
have their own sewage-treatment facilities, he said.
Dale W. Griffin of the U.S. Geological Survey's Center for Regional and
Coastal Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said he found it interesting
that bacteria with a fecal source had been identified as pathogens in
"One of the primary concerns in the Florida Keys is the waste disposal
problem," said Griffin, who was not part of the research team. He noted
the paper made no conclusion about the source of the bacteria killing
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