Researchers analyzed hundreds of sunflower starfish to figure out what's causing sea star wasting syndrome. Photo: Cornell University

By Katie Campbell
17 November 2014

SEATTLE (KCTS9) – After months of research, scientists have identified the pathogen at the heart of the starfish wasting disease that’s been killing starfish by the millions along the Pacific shores of North America, according to research published Monday.

They said it’s a virus that’s different from all other known viruses infecting marine organisms. They’ve dubbed it “sea star associated densovirus.”

“When you look on a scale of hundreds and hundreds of animals, which we did, it’s very clear that the virus is associated with symptomatic sea stars,” said Ian Hewson, a microbiologist at Cornell University and lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. […]

But densoviruses don’t usually cause their hosts to die. What seems to be happening, Hewson explained, is that the sea star associated densovirus weakens a starfish’s immune system. That makes the starfish more susceptible to bacterial infections, which ultimately lead to the gruesome deaths associated with the syndrome – lesions forming, arms falling off and stars melting into piles of mush.

Hewson said it may be possible to use antibiotics to help starfish fight off those bacterial infections.

“That’s not a great strategy for the entire ocean or even small bays and inlets,” Hewson says. “But it does give us some ability to keep them in captivity and potentially grow up resistant stocks in aquariums.” [moremore]

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