- Burnett School College of Medicine Communique Infectious Disease Division
College of Medicine researcher Dr. Salvador Almagro-Moreno has received a highly competitive CAREER award from the National Science Foundation for his research into how deadly coastal bacteria resist antibiotics and enter a dormant state to survive between disease outbreaks.
The prestigious $782,351 NSF award, distributed over five years, recognizes the work of outstanding early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.
For more than 15 years, Dr. Almagro-Moreno has studied members of the bacterial family Vibrionaceae and how they evolve from being harmless to deadly. He jokingly describes himself as a “bacterial psychologist” who tries to get into the minds of microorganisms found in coastal waters that can infect humans. His goal is to understand how and why harmless bacteria change to become lethal and how they manage to survive between epidemics.
His research group investigates a diverse group of marine bacteria that include Vibrio cholerae, the agent that causes cholera, a diarrheal disease associated with contaminated drinking water, and a flesh-eating bacterium endemic to the coastal waters of Florida called Vibrio vulnificus. When that bacterium comes in contact with open wounds or is ingested, for example through raw oysters, it can cause infections that can develop into deadly sepsis. Since 2010, more than 400 cases of V. vulnificus have been reported in Florida with over 100 fatalities.
Although most coastal microorganisms are harmless to humans, Dr. Almagro-Moreno said knowing which ones can become pathogenic can help scientists and government agencies recognize and reduce the potential danger the bacteria can pose to industries like tourism and aquaculture.
His team samples coastal areas of Florida to isolate bacteria and study how environmental factors affect the development of potential pathogens. By using V. cholerae and V. vulnificus as model systems, his lab has identified numerous genetic markers that can predict whether a bacterium might become deadly, or has the traits that allow it to spread in humans. “It’s important to identify what the triggers are that lead some bacteria to switch from being harmless to being pathogenic, and how they survive in the environment or after antimicrobial treatments,” said Dr. Almagro-Moreno.
Climate change is a major factor in the proliferation of Vibrios in coastal waters. “Differences of one or two degrees in temperature can create a completely different ecosystem,” said Dr. Almagro-Moreno, adding that as temperatures continue to rise, Vibrios are becoming a bigger public health concern. His study of the emergence, rapid spread and eventual disappearance of a cholera epidemic in Latin America was recently published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology and recognized by the World Health Organization. “Studying the dynamics of these bacteria will make it possible to help develop reliable treatments and standardize management programs for future disease outbreaks,” he said.