UCF and MIT researchers are using farm-raised seafood as a model to create new technologies that fight pathogenic bacteria.
College of Medicine microbiologist Salvador Almagro-Moreno and MIT’s Otto Cordero were recently awarded a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to create synthetic microbiomes — communities of microorganisms — that will better protect aquatic environments from bacteria.
The team discovered that microbes are organized in “ecological modules” that could be mixed and matched to construct microbiomes to better fight pathogens. They are working with shrimp farms in Ecuador to build new microbial communities for aquaculture that will improve shrimp health.
About 50% of the seafood consumed worldwide is grown through aquaculture, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and that number is expected to increase as world demand for seafood outpaces natural sources. Aquaculture farms raise shrimp and other seafood in enclosed tanks where bacteria can infect the entire stock, and pose a potential health concern for consumers.
The UCF-MIT team is working with farmers in Ecuador because that country is one of the top three shrimp exporters in the world. In 2022, Ecuador produced 2.34 billion pounds of shrimp worth over $6.6 billion — with much of that seafood reaching U.S. markets.
“Any disease can spread quickly and it’s hard to separate infected from non-infected shrimp,” Almagro-Moreno says. “The effects of microorganisms on animal health and disease resistance are areas that can have a severe impact on our ability to produce foods.”
Using a fast-growing species of brine shrimp called Artemia salina, the team will test how different synthetic microbial communities increase the shrimp’s resistance to Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a pathogenic bacterium that spreads in water. Almagro-Moreno compares the process to using probiotics for improved gut health, but in a more sophisticated and targeted fashion.
“It is real world application,” says. Almagro-Moreno, who will not only track bacterial spread but also study how to maximize shrimp production. The team hopes to help farmers learn how and why bacteria infect aquaculture farms and the best ways to prevent it.
UCF received almost $500,000 from the NSF for its work on the project. The grant will also fund a bridge program between UCF-MIT and the National Center for Aquaculture and Marine Research in Ecuador. That collaboration will allow the U.S. scientists to visit Ecuador to share ideas, implement new systems and bring Ecuadorian researchers to America to learn the team’s new techniques and approaches.
“Our ultimate goal is to translate these techniques to the USA’s own aquaculture production, such as oyster farms, and to eventually be able to treat and prevent human infections,” Almagro-Moreno said.
Using synthetic microbiomes to prevent bacterial infections is the latest avenue for Almagro-Moreno, whose work focuses on Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera, and the flesh-eating bacterium Vibrio vulnificus found predominately on the eastern coast of Florida. His team looks at environmental factors and genetic traits to understand how harmless bacteria evolve and adapt to become infectious to humans.
The author of 42 publications in highly prestigious journals and books, he is playing an increasing role as a scientific communicator about infectious disease. In the past year, Trends in Microbiology, the premier journal in microbiology, invited him to write a cover article about the emergence of pathogens, and American Scientist magazine asked him to do a cover story about the importance of understanding how pathogens evolve. This year he co-edited a book on “Vibrio spp. Infections” for Springer Nature and provides expert opinion to the FDA on flesh-eating bacteria. The Research Corporation for Science Advancement recently named him a Scialog Fellow for his work looking at the risk of novel emergent pathogens. Last year he was the first person at UCF to receive the highly prestigious Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award.