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Is herpes killing our coral reefs?

By Kathleen Blanchard     Mar 28, 2012 in Science
Scientists are seeing a decline in coral reefs worldwide, but pinpointing why it’s happening has been a challenge. Now scientists are turning their focus toward looking at diseases as the cause; specifically the herpes virus.
According to researchers, publishing in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, coral reef decline has reached a crisis, but not much has been done to explore whether viruses might be contributing. As reefs disappear, so do ecosystems that harbor marine life.
Rebecca Vega-Thurber, an assistant professor of microbiology at Oregon State University (OSU) said in a press release:
“Most researchers have looked only at bacteria. But we suspect viruses may play a role in this as well, and it’s important to learn more about what is causing this problem. Corals are the building blocks of the tropical seas.”
Vega-Thurber explains scientists have identified 22 diseases that affect corals, but not the pathogens that might be killing them.
In response to the crisis, OSU has launched a large scale program to study virus genomes, in hopes of uncovering the mystery of disappearing corals. The impetus is known as ‘metagenomics’. There is currently just one other program of its kind.
Interestingly, the researchers found a predominance of the herpes virus among the reefs that isn’t the same as the human virus, but similar. In one instance, the virus appears after the corals were stressed.
“We were shocked to find that so many coral viruses were in the herpes family,” Vega-Thurber said. “But corals are one of the oldest animal life forms, evolving around 500 million years ago, and herpes is a very old family of viruses that can infect almost every kind of animal. Herpes and corals may have evolved together.”
She also explains viruses might be induced in coral reefs from global warming and pollution – both of which have been blamed for declines.
“We have found that nutrient increases from pollution can cause increased levels of viral infection, as do warmer water and physical handling,” Vega-Thurber said. “Now we have to determine if those increases in infection cause actual diseases that are killing the coral.”
The corals could also be passing viruses on to fish and other marine life. 'Mucus’ that contains human viruses has been found on coral and also linked to population density.
The study authors concluded that if they can learn more about viruses, such as the prevalent herpes type found on coral reefs, they could take steps to mitigate damage. The researchers say understanding what’s harming coral reefs might also help humans.
More about herpes virus, Coral reef, Decline, OSU study, Diseases