100 trillion friends you didn’t know you had

■ BY SUE ERWIN     Mote Cafe

A common word that often comes to mind when many people think about bacteria is “gross.”

Mote Marine postdoctoral research fellow Dr. Andrea Tarnecki tried to break that bad reputation on Tuesday, April 12 at a ‘Science Café’ event held at the Johann Fust Community Library.

The free educational event entitled “Itsy-Bity Allies: Bacterial ‘Helpers’ for Humans and Fish” was geared toward educating locals on beneficial bacteria for both humans and fish.

Dr. Jeffrey Humbarger of the Boca Grande Health Clinic teamed up with  Tarnecki to hold an interactive discussion about the benefits and damages of microorganisms in our bodies and in fish.

The general topic was aquaculture, also known as aquafarming. The process involves cultivating freshwater and saltwater populations under controlled conditions, and it is often contrasted with commercial fishing, which is the harvesting of wild fish.

“We are making amazing breakthroughs in aquaculture. Our programs are researching potential cures for 51 types of cancer,” said Mote Marine President Dr. Michael Crosby.

Dr. Humbarger said bacteria are teaching us more about human health, and it’s helping to steer the research in new directions.

“All of us have our own ecosystems of bacteria. Every one is unique, and each has its own genetic fingerprint with many different contributors,” Humbarger said.

The power of bacteria depends on where they come from.

Humans get bacteria from genetic, dietary and environmental exposures, whereas fish get their initial bacteria from seawater and the sand and soils they live in.

Dr. Tarnecki said that problems occur when there is a buildup of opportunistic pathogens and they start to grow and develop disease patterns.

“In the past, we supplemented the system with antibiotics because a majority of the bacteria are beneficial. We supplement some good bacteria to make the fish more resilient in the controlled conditions, and they are really the healthier fish in the bay,” Tarnecki said.

All the released fish are tagged for future monitoring.

Scientists find the good bacteria from the external sources of healthy fish and the water they live in.

A member of the audience asked if fish can get cancer.

Tarnecki answered that they do, but the problem is that by the time a fish exhibits a tumor, there is already too much damage done to the organs. She added that sharks have the healthiest immune systems, because they have an organ that creates new immune cells.

Dr. Humbarger explained the difference between viruses and bacteria.

“A virus is a simple organism, but it’s more difficult to kill generally, because they only have RNA (ribonucleic acid) instead of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), and bacteria have DNA,” he said.

Another audience member questioned the safety of our local seafood.

Dr. Tarnecki said the United States monitors our seafood very closely, and it is regulated through the FDA.

“After the oil spills, the FDA kept a careful track of the health of wildlife. We are trying to set the model for other countries to harvest seafood that is safe for the environment and safe for people to eat, especially since a large portion of our seafood comes from overseas,” she said.

She recommended that everyone download the “Seafood Watch” application created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The app suggests the best choices for seafood favorites as well as good alternatives for sustainable seafood.

Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Jeanie and Bayne Stevenson sponsored the event.

For more information on upcoming events, visit mote.org.