Stephen A. Watts, Ph.D., says sea urchins hold the key to possible breakthroughs in business, medicine and environmental management.
|Stephen Watts is the recipient the Ireland Prize for Scholarly Distinction for his work in aquaculture, medicine and the environment. For reservations to the dinner and lecture April 30, call University Events at 934-0771.|
Others agree: His pioneering work in sea urchin nutrition and culture is being studied worldwide in aquaculture and fisheries, including a research program that includes active international collaborations in Chile, Peru, Columbia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Scotland, Norway and Israel.
“And some of what we’ve discovered is just the tip of the iceberg,” Watts says.
Because of his breakthrough research and contributions to UAB and the local community, Watts has been selected as this year’s recipient of the Caroline P. and Charles W. Ireland Prize for Scholarly Distinction.
UAB presents the Ireland Prize annually to a full-time faculty member in the schools of Arts & Humanities, Natural Sciences & Mathematics or Social & Behavioral Sciences in recognition of professional and academic achievements and contributions made to the university and local community. The Caroline P. and Charles W. Ireland Endowment for Scholarly Distinction makes the award possible.
The award presentation and dinner for the Ireland Prize for Scholarly Distinction will be held Monday, April 30 at The Club Staterooms.?A reception will begin at 6 p.m. and dinner follows. Watts will present a lecture titled “Crossing Bridges: Aquaculture, Medicine and the Environment” at the dinner.
Watts is a classically trained, world-renowned aquatic and marine animal physiologist and nutritionist. Many credit Watts for having the vision to bring together traditional aquatic animal research with cutting-edge science. His research bridges biomedical and eco-toxicological disciplines, a scholarly marriage of agriculture, medicine and environmental biology.
Aquaculture, medicine and the environment comprise the basis for much of Watts’ work today with the sea urchin, a small spiny creature found in oceans all over the world. With the development of feeds by Watts and his 17-member research team, they can now culture sea urchins in laboratories with defined environmental and nutritional conditions.
“We know nutritional history of the animal affects its toxicology, and by doing this we will standardize the procedures,” Watts explains. “This has huge implications in several federal agencies.”
One area where Watts says this will be especially important is in the medical model. The sea urchin, as a biomedical model, has been used for decades. More specifically, eggs can be fertilized in the laboratory and the resulting embryo has become a powerful tool for the study of cellular events during early development. Interestingly, development of the sea urchin embryo is very similar to that of humans. In fact, the sea urchin genome was recently sequenced due to the widespread importance of this development model.
Combining this with the feeds that give sea urchins defined environmental and nutritional conditions opens up a whole new window of opportunities for researchers.
“Now it will be possible to develop genetic lines of sea urchins, much like with a white rat,” Watts says. “It will be possible to evaluate numerous compounds, including nutrients, pharmacologics, and potential toxicants, on early development. These and other compounds can be fed to adults and developmental effects on offspring can be evaluated. And it can be accomplished year-round in a defined environment at a fraction of the costs using traditional mammalian models.”
Watts’ cross-discipline approach has enabled him to attract funding from a number of federal sources, including NSF, NIH, USDA and NOAA, and he hopes to collaborate with other faculty and researchers at UAB.
“We’re very much hoping to initiate further collaboration with interested UAB faculty,” he says.
As for the Ireland Award, Watts says he is honored and excited about his selection, but is quick to praise his team for their efforts in the research.
“We have a great group of faculty, graduate and undergraduate students working together, just a phenomenal team,” Watts says. “That’s why we have been successful. This award is for everybody, not just one person.”