Star Wars: Viruses versus Crown-of-Thorns Starfish. A new hope?

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1. Summary

One of Australia's most iconic features, the Great Barrier Reef is facing a huge threat in the form of the coral-eating Crown-of-thorns starfish. Could viruses be the answer to control the population boom of this species and contain the mass outbreaks that result in major coral decline? No research has ever been conducted into the viruses that infect Crown-of-thorns starfish so this project has the potential to provide novel and groundbreaking findings.

2. Description

The Great Barrier Reef, one of the most iconic features on Earth, is facing a huge threat to its existence from the Crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS). The favourite food of an adult COTS is live coral. A single COTS can devour as much as 10 metre squared of live coral per year. Although COTS are native to the Great Barrier Reef, their numbers have reached pest proportions. On healthy coral reefs, COTS play an important role, usually feeding on the fastest growing corals, such as staghorns and plate corals, allowing slower-growing coral species to establish colonies. This helps to increase the diversity of coral species on the reef. However, population explosions of this toxic coral predator pose one of the most significant threats to the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef, or GBR, is the only living structure visible from space and has been awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO. This amazing tropical ecosystem supports wide biodiversity and provides great social and economic benefits to Queensland and Australia, through activities such as tourism and fishing, contributing over $5 billion & 50,000 jobs each year. Research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science has revealed that coral cover on the GBR has declined by about 50 per cent over the past 30 years. Crown-of-thorns starfish are responsible for almost half of this decline.
Since the 1960s there have been four documented outbreaks of COTS on the Great Barrier Reef, with the latest starting in 2010. COTS are a hugely fertile species with a single female producing as many as 65 million eggs in one season. One of the few creatures that eats COTS is the giant Triton snail but one Triton only eats one COTS per week. A hand control method involves divers physically removing individual COTS or injecting them with a chemical that induces death. In the past 3 years, this method has removed 300,000 COTS from the reef but it is an inefficient and expensive population control method. Currently there are an estimated 5 million COTS on the GBR, so we need more effective control measures.
What else can we look to in order to solve this problem? Despite decades of COTS research, no one has studied the viruses that infect COTS. Large populations of COTS can suddenly plummet, with mass mortality occurring before food supplies run out, indicating a virus may be the cause. If we are to know as much about the biology and ecology of COTS we need to investigate the viruses that target this species, too. My research will establish a baseline knowledge of the viruses present in healthy and diseased COTS and build on this to examine whether viruses could help to control the number of COTS on the Great Barrier Reef.
If we are to address the problem of COTS population explosions on the GBR, we need to conduct research into all aspects of this species, including the viruses that target it. Your interest and support in this endeavour is greatly appreciated.



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Virologist currently studying viruses associated with the Great Barrier Reef. Mum to 3 awesome teenage children! :-)