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In 2004, The National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences created four Centers of Oceans and Human Health (COHH) around the country, including one in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. With the stated goal of studying the “risks and remedies from the sea,” these centers harnessed the expertise and resources of scientists and institutions from a variety of scientific disciplines, sparking novel partnerships throughout the scientific community.

The Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health (WHCOHH) exemplified this spirit of partnership and collaboration. Physical oceanographers, biological oceanographers, microbiologists, and genomics experts from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) joined together to investigate a myriad of ocean hazards. Receiving $6.25 million over a five-year period, the WHCOHH focused on studying harmful algal blooms and other waterborne pathogens, using the local waters of New England as a model for temperate waters world-wide.

Past Research

The research conducted by the WHCOHH was not only estimable scientifically, but it was also valuable in its practical application toward safeguarding human health. Researchers from the center studying Alexandrium fundyense—a species of algae known to cause paralytic shellfish poisoning—were able to warn fishery and water resource agencies throughout New England of impending blooms, shutting down contaminated oyster beds before those shellfish could be harvested and brought to market. Another research project shed valuable light on the genetic structure of microbes called vibrios, responsible for 95 percent of all seafood-related deaths, and researchers from WHCOHH traveled to Lake Pontchartrain in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to investigate the potential vibrio contamination of that watershed. Additionally, researchers studying the effects of coastal ocean processes on waterborne pathogens discovered Legionella bacteria in the water at Mt. Hope Bay, outside of Fall River, MA. Their research demonstrated the potential for what were presumably freshwater pathogens to exist in salt-water environments. All of these projects evinced the latent value in the center’s founding premise—that through an interdisciplinary approach with an eye to human health, these research projects could do real and lasting good for both humans and the oceans.

Pilot Projects

In addition to the four main research projects, WHCOHH was also engaged in numerous pilot projects, exploring the potential value and utility of other areas of study. These projects look to stimulate collaborative and interdisciplinary research at the center, recruit scientists not currently involved in the WHCOHH through interaction with center investigators, encourage the use of the WHCOHH genomics core facility, and foster the application of the new technologies and experimental approaches to questions concerning the impact of ocean processes on human health.

In the summer of 2004, the WHCOHH received 13 pilot project proposals from WHOI, MIT and the MBL. These projects all looked at a myriad of oceanographic issues—from the detrimental effects human activity can have on local Cape Cod marshes and beaches, to naturally occurring cyanobacterial neurotoxins, which have been linked to degenerative diseases such as ALS and Parkinson’s. These and other pilot programs shed light on potentially fruitful research for the future.
» See more information regarding the WHCOHH pilot projects

Genomics Core Facility

The Genomics Core Facility at WHCOHH distinguishes the center as it provides the only capillary or slab-based DNA sequencing capability within 75 miles of Woods Hole. The facility is able to provide near-continuous sequencing support to the Woods Hole scientific community, running unattended for at least 48 hours at a time. Additionally, the facility has supported genomics research projects not only for WHOI but also for NASA and NSF sponsored programs as well.

Housed in the W.M. Keck Ecological and Evolutionary Genetics Facility at the MBL, the Genomics Core Facility is able to work in conjunction with the faculty of the Bay Paul Center, which specializes in the study of global infectious diseases, molecular evolution, and molecular microbial diversity. This relationship with the Bay Paul center merges expertise of microbial populations with the sequencing capability of the Core Facility—a confluence to the benefit of WHCOHH investigators studying microbial population structures.
» See more information about the Genomics Core Facility

WHCOHH 2012-2018

In October of 2012, the NSF and NIH recognized the benefits of the center’s work, and pledged over $6 million dollars in additional funding over the next 5 years. In the second phase, the WHCOHH research has been more specifically focused on harmful algal blooms, utilizing complementary biological, hydrographic, and modeling systems to better understand this biological phenomena. By investigating what causes these blooms to start and stop, predicting more accurately the spread and extent of the contamination, and determining the long-term health implications of exposure to these pathogens (even at legally permissible levels) the WHCOHH is at the fore of researching the ever more prevalent and frequent problem of harmful algal blooms in our oceans.

In addition to the WHCOHH, NSF and NIH also provided joint funding for the new Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health, which focuses its research on tracking natural chemicals known as halogenated organic compounds in the environment, as well as many Oceans, Great Lakes, and Human Health Research Projects.

NIH award number: 1P01ES021923
NSF award number: OCE-1314642

The Present

The WHCOHH continues to build on its past accomplishments and research.  In the current Center, we continue to the strong inter-disciplinary research approach to further the integration of strong oceanographic science and basic biomedical research, to better protect human health and welfare, and continue to elucidate the “risks and remedies” that come from our relationship with the sea.

NSF award number: OCE-1840381
NIH award number: 1P01ES028938