Vasta To Address Diseases Of Marine Environment At AAAS Meeting

January 22, 1999

ANAHEIM, CA -- Diseases related to poisonous substances in the ocean can have a significant impact on human health, the environment, and the economy. The key to solving these problems, says Dr. Gerardo Vasts, professor of biochemistry and immunology with the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute's Center of Marine Biotechnology, is learning more about the genetic make-up of pathogenic microorganisms and how they proliferate and become toxic.

"We need to develop accurate probes to detect and monitor them. This will assist our efforts in diagnosis, prevention, and remediation in the fisheries and aquaculture industries."

Vasta will address these concerns in an online news briefing on "Health Risks and Diseases of the Ocean," as part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting and Science Innovation Exposition in Anaheim. The online briefing, to be broadcast over the Internet through EurekAlert!, is scheduled for 10:45 a.m. ET, Friday, January 22.

Vasta also will consider questions about shellfish as transmitters of disease to seafood consumers. "These are significant concerns," he adds, "because microbial diseases in the marine environment may not only harm marine ecosystems, natural resources such as fisheries, and aquaculture stocks, they also may affect human health."

The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), for example, an efficient filter feeder and therefore ecologically important, has been decimated along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts by parasitic diseases, seriously affecting the oyster industry. In the Chesapeake Bay, mass mortalities due to protozoan infections such as "Dermo" (Perkinsus marinus) and MSX (Haplosporidium nelsoni) have severely reduced existing oyster populations and have affected harvests during the past two decades.

More recently, skin lesions and mass mortalities in various fish species also have been associated with human health problems such as memory loss and skin rashes, similar to outbreaks of the dinoflagellate Pfiesteria piscicida in North Carolina. The identity of the microorganisms for the Chesapeake Bay episodes, however, is still uncertain.

Vasta notes that substantial progress has been made in recent years to understand diseases in the marine environment. Nucleic acid probes used in combination with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) are becoming invaluable tools for the rapid detection and identification of an increasing number of pathogens. (Nucleic acid macromolecules, found in all living cells, contain the genetic code information to transfer this information from one generation to the next. PCR is an in vitro method to synthesize specific DNA sequences.)

Development of specific and sensitive diagnostic molecular tools for early detection of pathogens in the environment will help to improve disease control and management in fisheries and aquaculture, Vasta says. They also will help reduce the risk of transmission of microbes that are pathogenic to seafood consumers.

An independent component of the University System of Maryland, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute is a hub of intensive study into the science of biotechnology and its application to human health, the marine environment, agriculture, and protein engineering/structural biology. Its Center of Marine Biotechnology, the primary research organization located in the Columbus Center building in Baltimore, conducts basic and applied studies, offers specialized laboratories and information systems for researchers, and develops an array of educational programs for all ages.
Other participants in the online news briefing include James W. Porter, University of Georgia, and Joan B. Rose, University of South Florida. The AAAS annual meeting takes place from January 21-26 at the Anaheim Hilton and Anaheim Marriott Hotels in California.

NOTE TO REPORTERS: Reporters may register and obtain accreditation at the newsroom, located on Level 4 of the Hilton. If you are not already registered with EurekAlert!, you may arrange a temporary account to access the briefing by calling AAAS Newsroom Headquarters, 714-703-0122.

In addition, Dr. Vasta will speak in depth about "Molecular Approaches to Understanding Disease in Marine Invertebrates: Disease Resistance and Pathogen Adaptations," during the afternoon panel on Friday, January 22, from 2:30-5:30 p.m., PST.

University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute

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