Crystal Johnson ~ Cultivating Student Science

Vibrio parahaemolyticus

Research Out of Disaster

Rapid Response Research
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010 was an environmental disaster, affecting the entire Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. NSF quickly engaged the Rapid Response Research (RAPID) mechanism, regularly used to enable research on unanticipated events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This mechanism allowed NSF to make grant awards quickly for research related to the oil spill.
The vibrios are a class of bacteria that can consume oil, so they have naturally been a focus of attention in the Gulf of Mexico since the oil spill that began April 20, 2010 with the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. In June 2010, Dr. Crystal Johnson, Dr. Gary King and Dr. Ed Laws of Louisiana State University (LSU) received a National Science Foundation (NSF) RAPID grant to look at how the abundance and virulence of Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus might change in response to the spill.

"Adaptation to the spilled oil may result in an increase in some types of vibrios," says Crystal. "We believe that vibrios will change in response to the stress of direct exposure to oil and to indirect effects of interactions with other species affected by oil." Crystal and her colleagues hypothesize that there are unidentified genes associated with pathogenicity that help pathogenic vibrios adapt to environmental changes. They are addressing the effect of oil on the relative abundance of pathogenic bacteria in a community by collecting samples of bacteria in water and oysters from several Louisiana locations and screening them for a newly discovered pathogenicity factor.

"The RAPID grant started out focusing on a specific problem, and quickly you are led to some other central questions," says Dr. King. "Oysters are pulling in microbes and they have a digestive system that involves bacteria...if there's a hydrocarbon event that gets into the water column how does that get translated?"

The RAPID grant team is building on a database already developed through the collection of samples for Crystal's Ecology of Infectious Diseases (EID) project. "We're comparing the response of microbes and oysters to water quality before and after the spill," says Crystal. In fact, Crystal believes that one of the strengths of their grant proposal was the existence of this background baseline data pre-oil spill.

One of Crystal's Masters students, Erica Simmons, is conducting research on whether there is an increase in an alternate pathegenetic factor post-oil spill. "There's all this sadness [because of the spill], but out of it comes this Masters project," says Crystal.