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Jacksonville University students sample river water, looking for harmful, flesh-eating bacteria

Posted: July 1, 2014 - 12:40pm  |  Updated: July 1, 2014 - 11:01pm
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Aboard Jacksonville University's floating classroom, JU Associate Professor of Biology Anthony Ouellette offers advice to microbiology students Rhea Derke (left), Marshalluna Land (right) and Madelyn Woods as they check water.  Christina.Kelso@jacksonville.com
Christina.Kelso@jacksonville.com
Aboard Jacksonville University's floating classroom, JU Associate Professor of Biology Anthony Ouellette offers advice to microbiology students Rhea Derke (left), Marshalluna Land (right) and Madelyn Woods as they check water.

More than 40 Florida residents showed up at hospitals last year with a certain bacterial infection, and soon the words “flesh-eating disease” screamed across headlines.

The bacteria, which killed 11 people, is always an underlying concern, but sometimes officials don’t know how prevalent the bacteria is in local waters.

A Jacksonville University class went out on the St. Johns River on Monday to get an idea of how much of the bacteria exists in the waterway.

There’s no guarantee the study will find much bacteria or any at all, said Anthony Ouellette, a JU assistant professor of biology. The goal of the project is to check out a public safety concern while teaching his students real-world research methods.

Ouellette said it will be about two weeks before the results of the water testing are completed.

The bacteria they’re looking for, called vibrio, shows up in several strains. The strains the team is most concerned about fall into two categories: bacteria that cause stomach aches and diarrhea when consumed, and bacteria that is highly fatal when it gets into the blood stream.

Vibrio vulnificus, the strain more commonly called the “flesh-eating bacteria,” is “the leading cause of death related to seafood consumption in the United States,” according to research published in American Family Physician.

The bacteria can cause a skin infection that breaks down skin and causes ulcers. The disease is mild for healthy individuals, but it can be dangerous for those with weakened immune systems, especially people with liver disease. The disease is treated with antibiotics.

The Florida Department of Health recommends: Eat only cooked shellfish, wear protective clothing when handling raw shellfish, and keep open wounds covered when in contact with warm salt water or brackish water.

Forty-one Floridians developed the infection in 2013, including one in Duval County, one in St. Johns County and one in Nassau County, and 11 people died, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Other less-dangerous types of vibrio infect people when they eat uncooked shellfish. Vibrio vulnificus usually enters the body when salt water comes in contact with a person’s open wound, but it can also be contracted by eating raw shellfish, such as oysters, according to the Florida Department of Health.

A Nassau County man got infected when a crab cut him while he was fishing in the Amelia River, Ouellette said.

“If we do have an upsurge at some point,” he said, “having background numbers for what naturally exists in these habitats is important.”

Out on the St. Johns River on Monday, Marshalluna Land balanced a dropper over a sampling well as the boat swayed.

The JU marine biology graduate student carefully diluted the salt water so she and her peers would be able to filter out the bacteria and other microbes for study.

The students took samples from several points along the St. Johns River and will test each area for the bacteria.

“It’s been terrific to be able to have hands-on experience and not just learn in a lab,” she said, “and not have samples sent to you from a company but rather come out here on the river.”

The class also looked at an overview of all bacteria that live in the St. Johns River to get an idea of the building blocks of the environmental ecosystem, he said. These bacteria are important to the river because they produce oxygen through photosynthesis and break down pollutants.

Ouellette used JU’s floating classroom, a boat fitted with spaces for experiments so researchers can collect samples and analyze them immediately. By using the boat, researchers don’t have to keep their samples on ice until they can get into a lab.

When students finish the course, he said, they’ll leave with experiencein performing experiments on site — in this case, in the middle of the river.

“A lot of these methods, they’re used in industry, they’re used in governmental agencies — the EPA, the CDC, the DEP, the Department of Health,” he said.

 

Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161

 
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