For over 18 months, scientists have been struggling to identify the particular marine virus that is causing over 20 species of starfishes to lose their limbs by just falling off to the ocean floor. Thousands of starfish in the Pacific coast infected by the virus suddenly have their limbs pull away from their bodies and then disintegrates by falling away. But the search has now come to the end: scientists have identified and isolated the guilty virus wreaking havoc on thousands of marine invertebrates.

According to Ian Hewson, an associate professor of microbiology at Cornel University’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, “there are 10 million viruses in a drop of seawater, so discovering the virus associated with a marine disease can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Not only is this an important discovery of a virus involved in a mass mortality of marine invertebrates, but this is also the first virus described in a sea star.”

The lead researcher made this known while presenting a genomic analysis of the culpable parvovirus, the Sea Star Associated Densovirus (SSaDV) – identified as the virus affliction infecting the community of sea starfish. This starfish disease causes a wasting away of marine invertebrates, and it is occurring on a scale that is getting scientists baffled.

“It’s the experiment of the century for marine ecologists. It is happening at such a large scale to the most important predators of the tidal and sub-tidal zones. Their disappearance is an experiment in ecological upheaval the likes of which we’ve never seen,” said Drew Harvell, a co-author of the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

David Garrison, a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences adds that “the recent outbreak of sea star wasting disease on the U.S. West Coast has been a concern for coastal residents and marine ecologists. This study, supported as a rapid response award, has made a significant contribution to understanding the disease.”

This study has helped marine ecologists to understand how the virus infects and afflicts sea stars, and factors that trigger the outbreak of the virus in marine life. Scientists are hypothesizing that environmental factors may have led to the development of the virus, and mutation cannot also be ruled out; meanwhile, overpopulation of sea stars may have also contributed to the rise of the virus in recent years.

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