How Starfish, Snails and Salmon Fight Pandemics
C. Drew Harvell
FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — Six years ago, I began investigating starfish dying by the millions off the West Coast of the United States from a mysterious wasting disease. The deaths continue; more than 20 species of starfish have been hit. These predators are important to the health of kelp forests, and their demise has thinned or destroyed these places and their bountiful biodiversity. A virus is believed to be the cause.
Before that, I saw corals on reefs of the Yucatán, Australia and Palau dissolve from the spread of infectious bacterial diseases. Right now, Caribbean corals are under siege from what scientists think is a deadly, highly contagious microbial pathogen.
As a marine biologist who studies disease outbreaks in the ocean, I am no stranger to pandemics. I have seen the devastation pathogens cause — and how it is amplified as the oceans warm. But I have also seen the remarkable adaptations that creatures like starfish, corals and abalones develop against these threats and the defenses they deploy. Like humans, they are resilient and immunologically cunning in ways we’re continuing to discover.
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