University of Central Florida and MIT researchers are using farm-raised seafood as a model to create new technologies that fight pathogenic bacteria.


Source: Hans Hillewaert

Brine shrimp

College of Medicine microbiologist Dr. Salvador Almagro-Moreno and MIT’s Dr. Otto Cordero were recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation  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. 

Health concern

About 50 per cent 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,” Dr. Almagro-Moreno said. “The effects of microorganisms on animal health and disease resistance are areas that can have a severe impact on our ability to produce foods.” 

Synthetic microbial communities

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.

Dr. 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,” said Dr. 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.

Bridging nations

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,” Dr. Almagro-Moreno said.

Using synthetic microbiomes to prevent bacterial infections is the latest avenue for Dr. 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.