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U-LINK Award
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U-LINK Award Focuses on Integrating Oceans and Human Health

Helena Solo-Gabriele, University of Miami College of Engineering (UMCoE) professor and associate dean for research, and an interdisciplinary team of University of Miami (UM) researchers have been awarded a Phase II grant from the UM Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK) for their research project that could make a difference in the lives of millions of Floridians facing increasing threats of marine pathogens and harmful algal blooms (HAB).

The research project is titled, “Aerosolization of algal toxins and pathogens in South Florida and their human health effects.”

For this project, team members from UMCoE, the Miller School of Medicine as well as the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science will use South Florida as a test case to investigate how environmental conditions facilitate human exposure to marine pathogens and toxins released into the air by wind and waves, and the consequences of exposure for human health. For Solo-Gabriele, specifically, her focus lies on the harmful marine pathogens emitted into the air.

“Marine pathogens are different than HABS in that they are infectious microbes growing within humans and can be transmitted from person to person as well as from water reservoirs,” she explains. “As part of our pathogen work, I’m working directly with Dr. James Klaus on environmental measurements and modifying our aerosol sampling techniques from those developed for the HABS measures.”

The list of pathogens include: Staphylococcus aureusCampylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coliSalmonella spp. Clostridium spp., Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Candida spp.

The U-LINK team has already investigated the production of particles released into the air by HABs of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, and elevated bacteria levels in South Florida’s coastlines and waterways.

To date, almost all research on HABS and pathogens, which are a worldwide problem often triggered by agriculture fertilizer and sewage washing into waterways, has focused on human contact with them while swimming or consuming seafood. UM’s experts hope to fill the gap in knowledge about the ability of toxins produced by blue-green algae and marine pathogens to become airborne, inhalable particles.

In this phase of their research, the team, which added Kristopher Arheart, associate professor in the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences, and the Rosenstiel School’s Sharon Smith, professor emeritus of marine biology and ecology, to its initial group. The research team will conduct field studies to test HAB and pathogen exposure levels in different communities and controlled experiments on the sea-to-air transfer of marine toxins and pathogens, and their toxic effects in a Drosophila animal model, utilizing the Rosenstiel School’s Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. SUSTAIN Laboratory.

In addition to Solo-Gabriele, the co-principal investigators (PIs) on the project are: the Miller School’s Alberto Caban-Martinez, assistant professor, David Lee, professor, both in public health sciences, and Grace Zhai, associate professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology; and the Rosenstiel School’s Larry Brand, professor of marine biology and ecology, Kimberly Popendorf, assistant professor of ocean sciences, Brian Haus, professor of ocean sciences; Cassandra Gaston, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School (U-LINK lead); and James Klaus, associate professor of marine geosciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The team, which was judged by external experts and the U-LINK action team to have developed both great cohesion as multidisciplinary collaborators and promising ideas for resolving a pressing societal problem during their initial phase of funding, was awarded $150,000 to advance their research. They were among the five teams that received U-LINK’s inaugural Phase I grants, which are designed to help members develop into cohesive teams, forge a shared vision, and refine their approach to their topic.

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