USM researcher, Moss Point native hopes study will save lives

By Danielle Thomas - bio | email

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - A Moss Point native is at the forefront of a new study on how to prevent some types of food poisoning. Dr. Crystal Johnson is a microbiologist at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs. She's just received her first grant ever as a lead researcher for $2.3 million to study bacteria found in oysters.

Crystal Johnson is part microbiologist and part detective, at least in the laboratory. Her mystery is to unravel is why some bacteria naturally found in coastal waters sometimes go from helpful to hurtful.

"They're very powerful organisms," said Johnson. "They have the power to kill you or to help you."

Johnson will spend the next four years studying the bacteria that contaminate oysters using a grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She says she'll look at factors like water temperature and carbon levels in searching for right combination that causes certain bacteria deemed safe in small amounts to multiply to toxic levels.

"If you collect say 100 samples, it's better to have 200 samples," Johnson said "So this will allow us to collect an additional 100 samples, for example, so that we'll have richer data. It will be more solid data."

Johnson is determined her findings do more than get published in journals, but help her Mississippi Gulf Coast community. She wants to be able to warn people with small cuts that going into the Gulf when bacteria levels are high could lead to infections or even amputations. Johnson wants to people with compromised immune systems to know beforehand when it's not safe for them to eat raw oysters.

"The ultimate goal is to save lives because if you can protect people and tell them, 'Hey, you might want to make a different decision based on what our discoveries have been,' then you can possibly save a life."

USM officials say other staff from the university as well as from two out-of-state research facilities will also work on the research project.