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Hollings Lab ‘Center of Excellence’: Unusual Research Partnership Goes ‘Full-Circle’

Three Core Research Activities address Four Fundamental Questions …with Five Partners Working Under One Exceptional Roof…

Picture the face of a clock.

At the top, 12 o’clock is the word “Humans.”

Filling a critical void in researching the full circle of oceans/human health and human health/oceans relationshipAt six o’clock is “Marine Environment.”

Go clockwise, from noon to six, from Humans to Marine Environment.

Think now about how the activities of humans affect the marine environment, the noon-to-six side of the circle. That is where NOAA and other resource management agencies traditionally have focused their coastal research activities.

Now, with the advent of a newly named “ Center of Excellence for Oceans and Human Health” at NCCOS’s the Center for Human Health Risk (CHHR) in Charleston, S.C., researchers are looking too at the six o’clock to 12 o’clock side of the circle – how the marine environment affects human’s health and socio-economic well being.

“Bringing the assessment cycle full-circle” is how CHHR Director Fred Holland, Ph.D. describes the effort.

Some might see that as a characteristically modest understatement of what in fact is shaping-up as an extraordinary challenge involving an impressive and far-ranging partnership. “I think we have a difficult task ahead, and I am not sure we can yet call it an accomplishment,” Holland says with an air of both optimism and of caution. “The proof is still in the pudding.”

CHHR LaboratoryOnly recently, the new Hollings facility has been awarded NOAA’s “ Center of Excellence for Oceans and Human Health” designation, making it just one of three such NOAA facilities nationwide. With an initial award of more than $2 million to begin its work “addressing fundamental questions about the quality and safety of our coastal waters and the seafood they contain,” CHHR has assembled an innovative partnership to meet its impressive objectives.

(Hollings Marine Lab shares its 88-acre Fort Johnson campus with NCCOS’s Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research (CCEHBR), which researches coastal ecosystem health, environmental quality, and related public health impacts. The other two NOAA Centers of Excellence in the Ocean and Human Health Initiative are the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Wa, and the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mi. The NOAA labs will also interact extensively with related programs of the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. )

While the Center for Human Health Risk, located at the South Carolina Marine Resources Center in the Fort Johnson section of Charleston, is every bit a NOAA facility, its unique strengths derive from the benefits of bringing five diverse institutions together under one proverbial roof. It’s the potential possible through those combined resources that most distinguishes CHHR.

Along with CCEHBR, NOAA and its National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), the coastal science research arm of the National Ocean Service, the CHHR partnership also includes:

the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, the Congressionally-chartered U.S. Department of Commerce’s agency responsible for developing and applying technology, measurements, and standards in the national interest. In addition to running measurements and standards laboratories, NIST works extensively in chemical science and technology, physics, and information technology. Its Advanced Technology Program explores “not-yet-possible” technologies.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, SCDNR, “advocate for and steward of the state’s natural resources,” including its coastlines.

The College of Charleston, a state-supported institution established in 1770 to provide education in the arts and sciences, education and business, with a particular emphasis on meeting the changing demands of the state’s “Lowcountry” coastal areas.

The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), established in 1824 and now a major state university with a medical center and six colleges for the education of health professionals, biomedical scientists and other health-related personnel.

‘Unique partnership…unparalleled research expertise’

This unique partnership allows NOAA to focus an unparalleled combination of basic, applied, and biomedical research expertise,” says CHHR Director Holland. “The diversity of this consortium allows us to focus on everything from coastal ecology and physiology to cutting-edge molecular biology, chemistry, and toxicology.”

Expressing a depth of commitment and excitement one finds pervasive at CHHR, Holland and his scientific colleagues can barely hide their excitement at addressing “questions of paramount importance to maintaining the health of our coastal environments and the humans that live in the coastal zone.”

Walk around the CHHR facility. Look into the various laboratories, look at the sophisticated technology arrayed to address important coastal science questions.

Speak at random with the scientists working there from various partner groups. One gets a distinct sense, to quote a Buffalo Springfield rock song popular in the Sixties, that “something’s happening here.”

Something quite extraordinary indeed! Given their status as the planet’s single most important source of biological activity, of water, of diversity and biomass production…

And given their extraordinary wealth of food, nutrients, medically critical pharmaceuticals and valuable chemical compounds…

… it’s little wonder that the scientific community yearns to better understand how multiple stressors – pollution, global climate change, coastal development and more – affect marine ecosystems.
Three Core Research Areas Emphasized

With CHHR’s newly launched “Oceans and Human Health Initiative,” the scientists are focusing on new methods, approaches, and tools for evaluating how marine organisms respond to these stresses and how best to identify and characterize chemical and microbial threats to marine ecosystems and human health. They’ve organized themselves into three discrete core research areas: Applied Marine Genomics, Chemical Contaminants, and Source Tracking of Marine Pathogens.

Applied Marine Genomics – Bob Chapman, Ph.D., from SCDNR and Greg Warr, Ph.D., from MUSC are heading-up the CHHR Applied Marine Genomics research. Their research team is developing genetic techniques to evaluate molecular-level responses illustrating how oysters and shrimp respond to multiple environmental stressors. They will use these tools to assess the health status of individual organisms.

Working with Drs. Karen and Lou Burnett of the College of Charleston, the researchers hope also to determine how multiple stressors – for instance low levels of dissolved oxygen and chemicals – affect the degree to which oysters serve as vectors for human pathogens.

Chemical Contaminants – NCCOS’s Mike Fulton, Ph.D., is working with Don Bearden, Ph.D., and Paul Becker, Ph.D., of NIST to explore ways of identifying and measuring emerging contaminants of concern in the marine environment. The research also determines the effects on key marine species of compounds such as flame retardants, human and animal pharmaceuticals and personal care products, and new pesticides. The new Center of Excellence will also include research conducted by Craig Browdy, Ph.D., and Ted Smith, Ph.D., of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to evaluate the health benefits and risks of seafood, including a comparison of the nutritional value and human health risks of stocked vs. wild fish and farmed vs. wild shrimp. Using these new methods, the scientists expect to be able to better assess threats chemicals in the environment pose to marine life and humans.

Source Tracking of Marine Pathogens – NOAA/NCCOS scientists Jill Steward, Ph.D., and Jan Moore, Ph.D., are leading this effort, collaborating on their research with NCCOS’s Beaufort, N.C.-based Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research and with the NCCOS laboratory in Oxford, Md., and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorology Laboratory in Miami, Fl.

The researchers seek to identify and determine sources of pathogenic micro-organisms, including viruses, posing risks to public health. They are exploring new ways to accurately measure fecal coliform bacteria in the marine environment, for instance, and trying to identify whether humans, domesticated cats and dogs, cattle, or other wildlife are the sources of that bacteria. Using sophisticated fluorescent signals the researchers are developing tools to identify hundreds of pathogens and process water samples in virtual real time. They will seek to better identify viruses and marine viruses to best define which viruses and which protozoans are present.
Critical Element: Managing the Data

In addition, the Center for Human Health Risk is conducting a field program in shallow tidal creeks and estuaries to determine the reliability of the new methods and tools for application by national and regional monitoring and assessment programs. Denise Sanger, Ph.D., of the South Carolina Office of Coastal Resource Management and Bob Van Dolah, Ph.D., of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources will jointly lead the field research program.

The diverse and complex nature data the CHHR scientists are assembling, and will continue to assemble in coming years, poses a unique data management challenge that requires the development of new data management and synthesis approaches. Combined, these tools will convert the complex data into information and knowledge that can be used for making ecosystem-based management decisions that include the human dimension. The CHHR’s bioinformatics and data management effort will be coordinated by David White, Ph.D., of NOAA and Dwyane Porter, Ph.D., of the University of South Carolina. They will work closely with all of the CHHR partners for this critical program element. It’s clearly not the kind of information that lends itself to simply being stacked in one’s desktop in-box!

It’s a big order, but one the five CHHR partner organizations say they are eager to take on. In a sense, they say the output of their total efforts is aimed at addressing four essential questions:

What are the cumulative impacts of coastal development on marine life?

Are the fish and shellfish safe to eat?

Is it safe for people to swim in the oceans?

What strategies make the most sense from the scientific perspective to reduce problems and risks facing our marine ecosystems?

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