In this project, researchers at two campuses of the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill and Charlotte) will continue their research focused on characterizing, quantifying, and modeling links among waterborne pathogens, extreme climatic events, impacts on nutrient/sediment delivery and phytoplankton blooms, and outbreaks of infectious disease in the anthropogenically-influenced Neuse River Estuary (NRE). With prior and current NSF support, the team utilized an interdisciplinary approach to examine potential links between eutrophication and pathogen fate and transport, including research on remobilization and particle attachment of pathogens, and modeling of pathogens and human health based upon data from normal climatic conditions. Work to date has demonstrated he enormous impact of extreme climatic (storm) events on the abovementioned processes.
Accordingly, with this renewal funding, the research team will increase its focus on these events (storms and droughts), which have increased dramatically in the past decade, and will test a two-pronged hypothesis that relates the growth, transport, survival, and vectoring of autochthonous (native) and allochthonous (from runoff containing fecal contamination) heterotrophic pathogens to complex biological and physical processes in this key estuarine system. Research will evaluate process-level (i.e., climatic disruption, particle attachment, estuarine transport, vectoring of pathogens to coastal communities) linkages that play central roles in the causation of human disease from runoff-contaminated waters and subject to environmental conditions favoring proliferation of native bacterial pathogens. The project will integrate; 1) baseline and extreme event monitoring, using advanced in situ sampling approaches, 2) targeted process-based studies, 3) human health and pathogen data (including novel approaches to link estuarine pathogens and human disease isolates), and 4) 3-D mechanistic and human health models of the estuarine system. Results will provide for a mechanistic/explanatory modeling framework that will elucidate causes, controls, fates, and environmental controls on pathogen fate in the NRE, and subsequent risk to human health; all impacted by increases in extreme events likely to accompany global climate change. Hydrologic, water quality, and human health models will improve knowledge of pathogen dynamics in diverse estuarine systems, and yield tools that will allow society to respond to and manage threats to human health from pathogens (re)mobilized and/or concentrated during extreme climatic events.
In terms of Broader Impacts, this research will yield both a computational model of and a unique system for collection and analysis of environmental, ecological, and human health data related to the response of human populations to the increase in pathogens in estuaries following extreme climatic events; all directed towards protection of the public from microbial disease transmitted through estuaries. This project will produce a network of research scientists and public health practitioners whose work is integrated to ensure the ability of regions to respond to extreme climatic events as they unfold. Lastly, the project will continue to train undergraduate and graduate students, including minority groups and women, in this new field of study, creating an interdisciplinary area that brings together the fields of ecology, medical microbiology, public health and epidemiology, modeling, geography, oceanography, and water systems engineering.