[MUSIC PLAYING] IAN HEWSON: I started diving I was 11 years old, and it really exposed me to this whole underwater world, where normally people don't go and see. The diversity of marine life that's out there and the ability to get out on the ocean really attracted me to this field-- basically because of the diving aspect. I want to go diving every day.
The oceans cover 70% of the planet. And microorganisms make up 80% of the biomass out there. So it's not the whales, it's not the dolphins, it's not the seals, it's not even fish. It's actually microorganisms that are really dominant. Having that relatively under-explored area of biology and having big question marks about things like disease and viral ecology, that makes it a very exciting field.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Environmental officials in California say there's been another highly troubling report about what's going on in the Pacific. The scientists call it the sea-star wasting syndrome. Something is killing the starfish, and they don't know why.
IAN HEWSON: Sea-star wasting disease is by far the largest marine disease event ever seen.
REPORTER: The arms crawl in opposite directions until they tear away from the body and their insides spill out.
IAN HEWSON: Divers that are in the water now that are not seen sea star species that previously were forming large mountains under water.
REPORTER: Scientists worry that the loss of sea stars could have far-reaching ecological consequences.
IAN HEWSON: These are organisms that effectively influence their entire ecosystem. It's going to have a profound influence upon the entire coastline-- the types of organisms that are, the nutrient chemistry in those areas. And we're starting already to see that effect.
GWEN IFILL: Scientists have been trying to figure out what's behind the mysterious disease.
IAN HEWSON: The Seattle Aquarium, the Vancouver Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium-- the animals in their collections were dying from the same disease. So it was clear that something was coming in from outside through the water, and it was actually affecting them. It wasn't any sort of cellular organism. It was something that was invisible to the microscopy that they were using, which puts it in the category of a virus.
We were in the right place at the right time. We had a pipeline for taking viruses out of tissues, sequencing them, and being able to identify potential pathogens. And so it was a really, really rapid progression of research that happened within the space of months, rather than the usual years, to come up with an answer.
In every drop of seawater, there's 10 million viruses that, basically, we've had to sort through to try and find the virus that is responsible for this disease.
REPORTER: Researchers collected tissue samples and analyzed them for all possible pathogens. Ian Hewson is a microbiologist at Cornell University. He's the lead author of the study.
IAN HEWSON: The sea star-associated densovirus is the best candidate pathogen for causing this disease. It was really important to communicate our results and our findings to the wider public via media outlets. And we were interviewed by various different platforms, including Science magazine, CNN, BBC, National Geographic, international radio stations. 435, I think it was, news outlets covered it. Facebook, Twitter-- we've had all of those social media feeds saying, hey, if you see disease report it to seastarwasting.org, which is the website set up to collect citizen science reports.
We are overstretched. We can't get out to monitor every single sea shore. And so, engaging citizen scientists to go out and actually report on where they're seeing the disease has been a major component of this whole study.
REPORTER: Now that scientists have identified the virus, the next step for Hewston's team is investigating what environmental factors might make starfish more susceptible to it.
IAN HEWSON: Climate change is having a huge impact upon the biology of organisms. To date, we have not had any distinct evidence that there's any one single factor related to environmental change that could be causing this entire wasting disease event. But there are unquestionably stressors in the environment that we are currently investigating-- things like increased temperature, pH changes as the oceans warm up.
What's really astonishing with this whole story, it has brought the oceans back into the classroom. The sea stars are all dying. Let's talk about the ocean. Let's see what's happening out there. What do we know about what might be causing it? There's been a lot of public engagement with this.
We had a check sent to us by a high school group in Little Rock, Arkansas, for $2,000 that they raised to save the sea stars. And Little Rock is a long way from the ocean.
Wider knowledge that's gain is not simply basic research, it's not simply knowledge for the sake of knowledge, it's made people more aware that the oceans are indeed changing and we do need to study them to understand it.
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Sea star wasting disease is the largest marine disease event ever seen. Microbiologist Ian Hewson shares what inspires him to study oceanic ecosystems, and how Cornell scientists are solving this ecological mystery.