The Fault in Our Sea Stars

Sick-Patrick

What if I told you that one of your favorite cartoon characters could be endanger of contracting a fatal disease. Patrick Star (picture shown above) is a character from the show SpongeBob Squarepants who is depicted as a sea star. In reality, sea stars cannot talk, have poor vision, are not comedians, and surprisingly contract diseases such as sea star wasting disease (SSWD). SSWD is believed to be caused by Ambidensovirus, a single stranded DNA virus that affects invertebrates.

Since June of 2013, millions of sea stars near the coasts of North America have disintegrated into masses of gunk. The effects of SSWD causes deflation, lacerations, and rapid degradation causing sea star deaths. In addition to the aforementioned physical implications of SSWD, the disease also inhibits the regenerative capabilities of sea stars.

Experimental studies suggests that SSWD is activated by a virus. Cornell researchers transferred the extracts of diseased sea stars to uninfected sea stars by filtering out bacteria and allowing the passage of particles comprising of different viruses including desnovirus. Once infected, uninfected sea stars began to develop SSWD. Although DNA sequencing revealed the presence of desnovirus, the data is still insufficient to determine the causation of SSWD. The causation confirmation could be achieved by isolating the desnovirus via cell culture and injecting sea stars with the virus exclusively in order to induce SSWD.

More research in needed to understand desnovirus host range, including intra-species and inter-species transmissibility. Desnovirus was also found in ophiuroids (e.g. brittle stars) and echinoids (e.g. sea urchins).

Why should people care? Sea stars are apex predators and/or keystone species in certain environments. The removal of sea stars could cause a trophic cascade leading to negative ecological impacts. Starfish are possibly the most important predator in the shallow ecosystem and eat a wide range of things. The removal of apex predators have been shown to affect predator and prey species, produce less-sustainable fisheries, and reduce species diversity.

Secondly, the virus could mutate into a strain that could infect other marine life, or even terrestrial creatures including humans. Imagine if this virus somehow affected humans; it would be one more crazy disease humans will have to combat.

As the continuance of SSWD affect mass populations of sea stars, we will soon discover first hand, the potential ecological implications effecting the western coastlines of North America. Now we wait, and hope that Patrick Star and his species can recover; Indeed, this may be a travesty for Hollywood, the city of stars.

by Sheream Reed

References

Campbell, K. (2015, February 18). Scientists Solve Mystery Of West Coast Starfish Die-Off. Retrieved July 6, 2015, from http://www.opb.org/news/article/scientists-find-out-whats-killing-west-coast-starf/

Image: http://wonkonthewildlife.com/stopping-starfish-virus-almost-impossible/

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