This week, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced the precautionary closure of oyster beds in Edgartown’s Katama Bay due to an outbreak of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a foodborne illness that can turn New England’s favorite raw seafood treat into a potentially deadly health hazard. Jennifer Bowen and Michael Shiaris, two biology professors in UMass Boston’s School for the Environment in the College of Science and Mathematics, are working with graduate students to attempt to trace future Vibrio outbreaks, and prevent Vibrio-laden oysters from hitting local raw bars.
“One of the challenges faced by oyster farmers is that there is a considerable lag time between when oysters are harvested and when a potentially pathogenic Vibrio outbreak is reported,” says Bowen. “By the time the outbreak is reported, there is no way to go back and determine what the conditions were like at the time of the harvest.”
Bowen’s graduate student, Yvetane Moreau, is developing new methods for preserving samples so that Vibrio can be cultured retroactively should an outbreak occur. According to Bowen, “This will ultimately allow us to shed light on the underlying mechanisms that lead to pathogenic outbreaks.”
Bowen and Shiaris, along with the New England Aquarium’s Michael Tlusty, are also investigating whether different farming practices in Rhode Island, Duxbury, and Wellfleet contribute to healthier oysters. The group hypothesizes that a community of “good microbes” in the sediment around oyster beds would make the oysters more resistant to disease outbreaks like the one in Katama Bay.