Scientists say densovirus is the likely culprit behind the death of millions of Pacific sea stars. Also known as starfish, the stars have been dying off over the past year after developing a mysterious wasting illness.
Considering there are 10 million different viruses for each droplet of ocean water, uncovering the viral perpetrator of an oceanic disease is a bit like "looking for a needle in a haystack," study author Ian Hewson, a Cornell University microbiologist, said in a statement.
In laboratory tests, as well as field studies, sea stars who showed wasting symptoms - which included the loss of limbs and melting - were much more likely to have higher amounts of densovirus than their healthy counterparts; the researchers published their findings Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's the first time, Hewson said, that scientists have untangled the genome of a sea star virus.
Catching densovirus is not pretty: Infected sea stars develop skin lesions, "followed by decay of tissue surrounding the lesions, which leads to eventual fragmentation of the body and death," according to the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2013, such symptoms were seen on sea stars along the Pacific coast from Baja California to Alaska. Similar mysterious starfish plagues had popped up in the '70s and '80s.