Study Identifies Pathogen Responsible For Sea Star Mass Die Offs Along Pacific Coast

By Jay T. Cullen

Sea star with Sea Star Wasting Disease photographed by the author at Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew BC in July 2014.

This diary summarizes a newly published paper by Hewson and colleagues in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA which investigated the cause of sea star die offs along the west coast of North America. This diary is part of series dedicated to summarizing scientific research on the impact of the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichii nuclear power plant on the North Pacific Ocean and the health of residents of North America. Northeast Pacific sea stars have experienced a mass die off recently and have disappeared from certain coastal ecosystems as a result. The Hewson et al. paper presents evidence that the cause of the wasting disease can be transmitted between affected to healthy individuals. The disease-carrying agent is virus sized and likely sea star-associated densovirus (SSaDV) which is found in greater numbers in diseased versus healthy sea stars. They also detected SSaDV in museum specimens of sea star dating from 1942 indicating that the virus has had a long term presence along the North American west coast.


There have been many speculative news items which have linked the release of radionuclides from Fukushima to the North Pacific Ocean to the most recent outbreak of sea star wasting which is occurring in west coast intertidal habitats. This is despite the fact that, for example, Fukushima derived radionuclides have still yet to be detected in coastal seawater collected up and down the North American Pacific coast.

Beginning in June 2013 massive numbers of sea stars have succumbed to sea-star wasting disease (SSWD) whereby they rapidly deteriorate, losing limbs, and turn into piles of slime. SSWD is an old term used to describe similar outbreaks of wasting that have occurred since at least 1979. The geographic extent and number of species impacted by the current SSWD outbreak is unprecedented. Affected individuals present with behavioural changes, lethargy, deflation, limb curling and loss, lesions and death. Very few individuals with symptoms are observed to recover.

Photographs of SSWD-affected stars (A) asymptomatic P. helianthoides, (B) symptomatic P. helianthoides, and (C) symptomatic P. ochraceus. Disease symptoms are consistent with loss of turgor, loss of rays, formation of lesions, and animal decomposition. (D) Map showing occurrence of SSWD based on first reported observation. (E) Transmission electron micrograph of negatively stained (uranyl acetate) viruses extracted from an affected wild E. troschelii from Vancouver . The sample contained 20–25-nm diameter nonenveloped icosohedral viral particles on a background of cellular debris (primarily ribosomal subunits) and degraded viral particles of similar morphology.

Hewson and colleagues examined affected and asymptomatic sea stars to demonstrate that an infective agent was responsible for SSWD. To do this they took homogenized SSWD affected sea stars and administered an inoculate or a heat killed inoculate of virus size containing filtrate to tanks containing healthy individuals. Results of these experiments indicate that heat killed inoculates did not lead healthy individuals to develop SSWD while inoculates with potentially live viral particles lead to SSWD symptoms in the previously healthy population. Previously healthy sea stars had very low loads of a virus callled Sea Star-Associated Densovirus (SSaDV) while after developing symptoms much higher amounts of SSaDV were found in the sea stars.

(A) Proportion of stars remaining asymptomatic after inoculation with control (heat-killed) or virus-sized fraction (VSF) of asteroid homogenates in first (Expt 1) and second (Expt 2) challenge. (B) Change in SSaDV load between initiation of viral challenge and termination of experiment (i.e., animal expiry in live challenge or euthanasia of control animals). Note difference in scale.
The authors then looked for the virus in asymptomatic and SSWD affected individuals in the wild finding that affected individuals were about 3 times more likely to be virus carrying than asymptomatic individuals. The virus was also found in plankton, sediments and other echinoderms. The presence of the virus in plankton and in filtration media of public aquaria affected by SSWD is consistent with observations that the disease could spread through ocean currents between infected and uninfected areas of the coast.

The authors conclude by pointing out that the spread of SSWD along our coast is most consistent with an infectious agent. Based on their observations and laboratory experiments this agent is most likely SSaDV which has been present along the coast for at least 72 years. Fukushima in not mentioned once in the article as there is no scientific evidence to relate SSWD to the trace concentrations of Fukushima derived radionuclides present offshore.

The authors identify outstanding questions as follows:

How exactly (by what mechanism) does SSaDV kill sea stars?
Are there other microbial agents involved in the wasting/death process?
What triggers outbreaks of SSWD?
How will the absence of important predators like sea stars affect the marine ecosystem along our coast?

The study highlights the increasingly recognized importance of marine viruses in helping to shape community structure and ecosystem dynamics in the ocean.

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