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Professor This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
3130 East Science Hall, Science & Engineering Complex
(205) 934-2045

Research and Teaching Interests: Nutrition Sciences, Lab Animal Nutrition, Aquatic Animal Nutrition

Office Hours: By appointment


  • B.S., Auburn University, Marine Science
  • M.S., University of South Florida, Zoology
  • Ph.D., University of South Florida, Biology
  • Post Doctorate, University of New Hampshire and State University of Utrecht, The Netherlands

Dr. Stephen Watts began his career in aquatic animal science and joined UAB in 1987. His lab has developed a strong program in animal science as it relates to the nutrition of marine and aquatic organisms. His interests include understanding basic mechanisms of nutritional regulation as well as applied aquaculture. Over the last two decades Dr. Watts has working with collaborators to develop understanding of nutritional requirements of lab-reared aquatic animal models in biomedical sciences. This includes understanding the role of nutrition in animal disease onset and progression, with emphasis as to how it relates to human nutrition and disease. The laboratory has a strong interest in obesity and co-morbidities. An additional area of research involves the development and application of standardized reference diets in a number of relevant organisms. This work includes the evaluation of developing foodstuffs for use and relevance in animal diets, including single cell proteins.

He has published over 180 articles in the field and currently teaches Cellular Biology to juniors and seniors at UAB. He is the Graduate Program Director for the Department of Biology. His work has been funded by NIH, NSF, NOAA, and a variety of foundations and industry groups. He is the only faculty at UAB to win the prestigious Caroline and Charles P. Ireland Award for Scholarly Distinction, the Presidential Award for Teaching, and the Graduate Dean’s Award for Outstanding Graduate Mentorship.

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  • Research Interests

    The research interests of our laboratory are broadly in the areas of nutrition and animal health. We are very interested in nutritional factors leading to obesity, digestive disease, and associated behaviors related to nutritional stress. We use primarily comparative aquatic animal models and rodents in nutrition studies related to human health. Our leading outcomes include understanding growth, reproduction, physiology and biochemistry, genomics and transcriptomics, and immunological responses of aquatic models to nutritional and environmental stressors. We are particularly interested in those outcomes related to changes in body composition and the mechanisms therein as related to obesity and other comorbidities. To this end, we formulate and produce animal diets that vary in ingredient and nutrient content.

    We are very interested in the zebrafish and sea urchin models for their value in biomedical research. These species are important in developmental research communities and we work in the further domestication of these organisms in promotion of their use in translational research. We are also interested in nutrition as it relates to improving aquaculture of commercial species. Our recent research efforts incorporate the use of novel rodent diets for studies of the nutrition/gut/brain asis. We utilize the nutrition framework to better understand the ecology and evolution of nutrient requirements, and apply this information towards understanding the role of nutrition in regulating health as well as disease onset and progression. The laboratory is also committed to promoting issues related to global food sustainability.

    The major topics of research in our laboratory include:

    • Understanding the effects of nutrition and the environment on the body composition and physiological function of aquatic organisms. Primary emphases involve mechanisms leading to or preventing obesity in finfish, or developing diets that promote growth and health in common aquaculture species, including shrimp and finfish.
    • Developing standard reference and experimental diets for zebrafish (Danio rerio), and sea urchins (Lytechinus variegatus). These studies will lead us to understand the role of specific nutrients affecting development, growth, and health of parental and offspring populations in these important biomedical models.
    • Evaluating the link between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain leading to common digestive disorders and associated mental distress.
    • Evaluating the nature and role of the microbiome in aquatic models, with emphasis in the response of the gut microbiome to nutrients and bioactive food components.
    • Using nanotechnologies to develop nutrient and drug delivery systems in aquatic animals.
    • Evaluating emerging ingredients as nutrient sources in animal diets.
    • Investigating the environmental physiology, growth, nutrition, and digestive physiology of species important in aquaculture, including sea urchins, tilapia, crayfish, penaeid shrimp, and freshwater prawns. Increased knowledge of these economically important organisms can lead to enhanced aquaculture practices.
    • Resource sustainability and global food security.
  • Select Publications
    • Fowler, L.A., M.B. Williams, L.R. D’Abramo and S.A. Watts. 2020. Zebrafish Nutrition – Moving Forward. In: Samuel Cartner et al., The Zebrafish in Biomedical Research. Elsevier Publishing, pp. 379-401
    • Lawrence, J.M., A.L. Lawrence and S.A. Watts. 2019. Feeding, digestion and digestibility. In: Sea Urchins: Biology and Ecology (4th Ed), J.M. Lawrence (ed.). Elsevier Press.
    • Watts, S.W., A.L. Lawrence and J.M. Lawrence. 2019. Nutrition. In: Sea Urchins: Biology and Ecology (4th Ed), J.M. Lawrence (ed.). Elsevier Press.
    • Fowler, L.A., L.N. Dennis-Cornelius, J.A. Dawson, R..J. Barry, J.L. Davis, M.L. Powell, Y. Yuan, M.B. Williams, R. Makowsky, L.R. D’abramo and S.A. Watts. 2020. Dietary Intake of Both n-6:n-3 Fatty Acid Ratio and Total Lipid Positively Influences Outcomes in Adiposity and Reproductive Health in a Zebrafish Model. Current Developments in Nutrition 4(4), https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzaa034
    • Williams, M.B and S.A. Watts. 2019. Current basis and future directions of zebrafish nutrigenomics. BMC Genes and Nutrition 14:34 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12263-019-0658-2
    • Park, Jieun, Daniel S. Levic, Skaelyn D. Sumigray, Jennifer Bagwell, Oznur Eroglu, Carina Block, Cagla Eroglu, Robert Barry, Colin R. Lickwar, John F. Rawls, Stephen A. Watts, Terry Lechler and Michel Bagnat. 2019. Lysosome- rich enterocytes mediate protein absorption in the vertebrate gut. Development Cell, 51, 7-20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.devcel.2019.08.001
    • Fowler, L.A., M.B. Williams, L.N. Dennis-Cornelius, S. Farmer, R.J.Barry, M.L. Powell and S.A. Watts. 2019. Influence of commercial and laboratory diets on growth, body composition, and reproduction in the zebrafish Danio rerio. Zebrafish 16(6), 508-521.
    • Jensen, K., J.C. Taylor, J.A. Barry, M. Powell, L. D’Abramo, A. Davis, S.A.Watts. 2019. The value of the sea urchin, Lytechinus variegatus, egesta consumed by the shrimp vannamei. J. World Aqua. Soc. 50, 614-621. DOI: 10.1111/jwas.12578154. Taylor, J.C., L.S. Dewberry, S.K. Totsch, L.R. Yessick, J.J. DeBerry, S.A. Watts and R.E. Sorge. 2017. A novel zebrafish-based model of nociception. Physiology and Behavior 174, 83-88.
    • Hakim, J.A., J.B. Schram, A.W.E. Galloway, CD. Morrow, M.R. Crowley, S.A. Watts and A.K. Bej. 2019. The pacific north-west purple sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus demonstrates a compartmentalization of gut bacterial microbiology, predictive, functional attributes, and taxonomic co-occurrence. MDPI Microorganisms 2019, 7(2), 35; https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms7020035
    • Hakim, J.A., Koo, H., and S.A. Watts. 2018. Small is big, unlocking the hidden potential of microbes for aquaculture. Global Aquaculture Advocate (Animal Health and Welfare). https://www.aquaculturealliance.org/advocate/small-is-big-unlocking-the-hidden-potential-of-microbes-for-aquaculture/
    • Koo, Hyunmin, J. Hakim, M. Powell, R. Kumar, P. Eipers, C. Morrow, M. Crowley, E. Lefkowitz, S.A. Watts, A. Bej. 2017. Metagenomics approach to the study of the gut microbiome structure and function in zebrafish Danio rerio fed with gluten formulated diet. J. Microbial Methods 135, 69-76 doi: 10.1016/j.mimet.2017.01.016
    • Heflin, L.E., R. Makowsky, J.C. Taylor, M.B. Williams, A.L. Lawrence and S.A. Watts. 2016. Production and economic optimization of dietary protein and carbohydrate in the culture of juvenile sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus. Aquaculture 463, 51-60.
    • Hakim, J., Koo, Hyunmin, Kumar, Ranjit, Lefkowitz, Elliot, Morrow, Casey, Powell, Mickie, Watts, Stephen; Bej, Asim. 2016. The gut microbiome of the sea urchin, Lytechinus variegatus, from their natural habitat demonstrates selective attributes of microbial taxa and predictive metabolic profiles. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 92(9) doi.org/10.1093/femsec/fiw146
    • Watts, S.A., C. Lawrence, M. Powell and L.R. D’Abramo. 2016. The vital relationship between nutrition and health in zebrafish. Zebrafish 13, S1 DOI: 10.1089/zeb.2016.1299
    • Fowler, L.A., L.N. Dennis, M.L. Powell, R.J. Barry, S.A. Watts and D.L. Smith, Jr. 2016. In vivo determination of body composition in zebrafish (Danio rerio) by quantitative magnetic resonance. Zebrafish 13(3), 170-176
    • Heflin, L.E., D. Raubenheimer, S. Simpson, S.A. Watts. 2016. Balancing macronutrient uptake in cultured Lytechinus variegatus. Aquaculture 450, 295-300.
    • Hakim, J.A., H. Koo, L.N. Dennis, R. Kumar, T. Ptacek, C.D. Morrow, E.J. Lefkowitz, M.L. Powell, A.K. Bej and S.A. Watts. 2015. An abundance of Epsilonproteobacteria revealed in the gut microbiome of the laboratory cultured sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus. Frontiers in Microbiology doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2015.01047
    • Powell, M.L., M.A. Pegues, A.J. Szalai, V. Ghanta, L.R. D’Abramo and S.A. Watts. 2015. Effects of dietary w3:w6 fatty acid ratio on body fat and inflammation in zebrafish (Danio rerio). Comparative Medicine 65(4), 289-294. PMID 26310458
    • Gibbs, V.K., L.E. Heflin, W.T. Jones, M.L. Powell, A.L. Lawrence, R. Makowsky and S.A. Watts. 2015. Optimizing dietary levels of menhaden and soybean oils and soybean lecithin for pre-gonadal somatic growth in juveniles of the sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus. Aquaculture 446, 198-205. PMCID NIHMS691504
    • Heflin, L.E. and S.A. Watts. 2015. Feeding time, frequency and ration affect growth and energy allocation in young adults of the sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus. Aquaculture Nutrition. 22(5), 1055-1064 https://doi.org/10.1111/anu.12323
    • Li, F.J., R.N. Duggal, O.M. Oliva, S. Karki, R. Surolia, Z. Wsang, R.D. Watson, V.J. Thannickal, M.L. Powell, S.A. Watts, T.Kulkarni, H. Batra, S. Bolisetty, A. Agarwal, V.B. Anthony. 2015. Heme oxygenase-1 protects Corexit 2900A-induced respiratory epithelial injury across species. PLOS One 10(4): e0122275. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122275
    • Heflin, L.E., V.K. Gibbs, W.T. Jones, R. Makowsky, A.L. Lawrence and S.A. Watts. 2013. Growth rates are related to production efficiencies in juveniles of the sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus. J. Mar. Biol. Assoc. U.K. pp. 1-11 PMCID 4245032
    • Smith, D.L., R.J. Barry, M.L. Powell, T.R. Nagy, L.R. D’Abramo and S.A. Watts. 2013. Dietary protein source influence on body size and composition in growing zebrafish (Danio rerio). Zebrafish 10(3) 439-446. PMCID: PMC3760061
    • Watts, S.A., M.L. Powell and L.R. D’Abramo. 2012. Fundamental approaches to the study of zebrafish nutrition. ILAR Journal 53(2), 144-160. PMC4064678
    • Heflin, L.E., Gibbs, V.K., Powell, M.L., Makowsky, R., Lawrence, J.M., Lawrence, A.L., S.A. Watts. 2012. Effect of dietary protein and carbohydrate levels on weight gain and gonad production in the sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus. Aquaculture 358-359, 253-261. PMC4076750
  • Academic Distinctions and Professional Societies
    • Graduate Program Director, Department of Biology
    • Senior Faculty, Nutrition and Obesity Research Center
    • Senior Faculty, Department of Surgery
    • Director, Lab Animal Nutrition Core (Animal Models Core, NORC)
    • Co-Director, Animal Models Core (NORC)
    • Co-Director, Zebrafish Research Facility, RSB
    • Co-Director, Sustainable Smart Cities
  • Student Groups
    • Faculty Advisor to Alpha Epsilon Delta, the Pre-Health Society
    • Faculty Advisor to the Accelerated Bachelors/Masters program
    • Faculty Advisors to the Early Acceptance Program