The largest estuary in the U.S., the Chesapeake Bay, is home to more than 300 species of fish and numerous shellfish and crab species. It’s also home to Vibrio bacteria, a food-borne infection associated with eating undercooked seafood.

Antar Jutla, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at West Virginia University, will partner with researchers at the University of Maryland, led by Professor of Microbiology Anwar Huq, to look at ways in which the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events are likely to affect the ecology of pathogenic Vibrio bacteria in the Bay, which is already experiencing twice the global average rate of sea-level rise. Their work is being funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, vibriosis causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the United States every year. Most infections occur from May through October when water temperatures are warmer.

Since Vibrios cannot be eradicated from the Chesapeake Bay, the development of predictive models based on conditions favoring their survival in the marine environment will inform decision makers to devise policies to protect public health.

“We will be looking at issues of predictability of clinically active bacteria in the Chesapeake Bay,” Jutla said. “The research team will produce a comprehensive assessment of the impact of extreme events on the prevalence of pathogens in Bay-associated water, plankton and oysters, considering the environmental and geophysical processes that modulate these relations.”

Prior studies clearly indicate that the frequency of Vibrio occurrences are influenced by environmental factors, and under certain conditions, these bacteria enter into a viable but nonculturable state. Detecting the presence of pathogenic Vibrios, including VBNC cells, is critical because loss of culturability does not guarantee loss of virulence.

“This research will enhance our understanding of the occurrence and abundance of clinically important Vibrios in the Bay using satellite remote sensing-inspired simulation and a prediction risk model integrating the ecological theory of pathogens through exhaustive sampling in the region,” Jutla said.

Jutla has done extensive research in hydroepidemiology, which he describes as the nexus of hydroclimate, the environment and human health. He leads the Human Health and Hydro-environmental Sustainability Simulation Lab at WVU, an interdisciplinary research group that investigates how extreme events and enhanced climatic variability impact the emergence of water-borne pathogens that cause infection in humans.

Through the use of satellite data, Jutla and his research team are able to create models that predict the distribution of pathogens across globe. Recent models he created to predict cholera outbreaks in Yemen were found to be highly effective in controlling outbreaks in 2018.

Originally from Mary C. Dillon for WVU Today