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Mysterious Disease Melts Millions Of Sea Stars Into Goo

Alison Leigh Lilly
A sea star in late stages of sea star wasting disease.

Did you know starfish are in serious trouble? A bug that’s apparently been dormant for 70 years woke up recently and melted millions of starfish – also known as sea stars – into piles of goo. Lauren Fuess is a UT-Arlington doctoral student who led a study on what’s called sea star wasting disease.

Interview Highlights: Lauren Fuess ...

... on sea star wasting disease: "We believe it's a virus related to rabies, also known as densovirus. It starts out pretty innocuous; you see sea stars with these twisted arms but that quickly progresses. They get white lesions and they basically begin to melt and some of them lose arms and just all rigidity to the body."

... on how the disease spreads: "We're not quite sure how it spreads yet. We believe it's some kind of waterborne virus, but we've recorded up to 20 different species of sea stars that have been affected by this disease on the West Coast."

... on how the virus kills sea stars: "It's been spreading rapidly up the west coast. What we've found is something about the virus is causing the sea stars to degrade. Their external structure collagen is also causing these crazy changes in their nervous system genes that might be causing some of that twisting we see. We're just now beginning to get the picture of what this virus is actually doing to the sea stars that is causing those terrible symptoms."

... on the sea star's role in the ocean: "Sea stars are extremely important in maintaining ecosystems. They're actually what an important scientific term 'keystone species' was coined after. They maintain the balance of the ecosystem by eating aggressive mussels that would otherwise dominate the ecosystems. So if you pull the sea stars away, you can see up to 50 percent loss of the number of species in these ecosystems."

Lauren Fuess led research into sea star wasting disease and is a doctoral student at UT-Arlington.