UVM professor making waves in marine biology research

Published: Dec. 28, 2018 at 2:58 PM EST
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Groundbreaking research from the University of Vermont could help pinpoint the cause of a mysterious disease that has killed tens of thousands of sea stars up and down the West Coast.

You wouldn't think of the Green Mountain State for sea star research, but a University of Vermont lab's study is making waves in the search for what's causing a devastating disease.

Five years ago there was a massive die-off of sea stars up and down the West Coast. Scientists don't know what caused the outbreak of sea star wasting disease which still lingers today. The images were heartbreaking. In a matter of days or weeks, sea stars disintegrated and then died.

"The animals will get lesions and then they lose pressure in their body and turn to puddles of goo, and their arms walk away from their bodies, so it's pretty grotesque," said Melissa Pespeni, a University of Vermont assistant biology professor that co-authored the study.

Sea stars are a keystone species, considered crucial to healthy coastal ecosystems. But being 3,000 miles away in Vermont didn't deter Pespeni from pursuing answers. "It turns out FedEx overnight is still FedEx overnight if you're shipping within California or across the whole U.S.," she said.

Her lab studied one species -- ochre sea stars -- and took time lapse video showing the disease's brutal progression over just half an hour. What Pespeni and her team noticed was that the sick stars showed an imbalance in their microbiomes, the bacteria that live in and on the creatures. There was a dramatic drop in the microbes when they started showing symptoms of the disease. Pespeni says it's possible when the microbes disappear, that leaves an opening for the pathogens to attack. Focusing on the microbiome, she says, might answer why some stars survive.

"All of these animals are out there being exposed in the water. Why do some stay healthy while others get sick?" she said.

Her research is being met with interest from scientists across the country. "This is something a little bit new, to be looking at the gut biome. I think it's pretty interesting," said Karah Ammann, a research ecologist with University of California Santa Cruz.

Ammann's lab tracks sea star populations up and down the West Coast. She says there's lots of factors that could weaken sea stars and contribute to the wasting disease, including warming waters, pollution and other variables. "It seems to be that there may be different pathology at work in various species," Ammann said.

Pespeni knows her research isn't an answer, but she hopes it may be a stepping stone to get one. "Everyone is still looking for a smoking gun of the cause," she said.

Right no they're working on collecting samples from another type of sea star to see what impact the disease has on that species.