Student’s failed project evolves into golden opportunity

Caitlin DelSesto(left) and Dr. Marta Gomez-Chiarri with a Forbes' sea star, one of many to be studied for a mysterious wasting disease.
Caitlin DelSesto(left) and Dr. Marta Gomez-Chiarri with a Forbes’ sea star, one of many to be studied for a mysterious wasting disease.

Caitlin DelSesto was rapidly approaching her graduation day last year when disaster struck—her senior project which she needed for her marine biology degree literally died.

Her project involved sea stars (formerly known as starfish but the name has been changed because the creatures are technically not fish) and she was able to gather about 20 of them when suddenly they all died in her tank at the Graduate School of Oceanography.

“They literally wasted away,” she said describing her doomed plans to study how sea stars’ growth is affected by the increasing acidification of the oceans.

“I was not able to write a full lab report,” she said, “but my professor really understood about it and he encouraged me to get in touch with as many people I could about it.”

That she did, and in the process, her failed senior project has been part of the evolution of a grant-supported study that involves not only URI but Brown University and Roger Williams University.

“My professor, Niels-Viggo Hobbs, understood it could lead to something bigger and luckily it did.” In addition, Ed Baker, a research associate at GSO, suggested she contact people like Dr. Gary Wessel at Brown because he heard he was interested is sea star diseases.

It turned out that Wessel was starting the process of writing a grant application to study sea star wasting disease and he suggested to Caitlin that she could be a part of it.

Caitlin in turn consulted with Dr. Marta Gomez-Chiarri of URI Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science. “I really wanted to go to graduate school,” said Caitlin, “but unless I could get some funding I would not be able to go.” That chat also resulted in a decision to contact Dr. Roxanna Smolowitz of Roger Williams University who they heard had sea star data.

The disease affecting sea starts, said Gomez-Chiarri, a shellfish researcher, “was something that I had put in the back of my mind.”

The more all the parties talked, the more it became apparent that a joint grant would be needed to explore the problem,

Wessel, who is the principal investigator of the resultant grant (called “The Pathogenic Cause and Impact of the Local Sea Star Wasting Disease” issued by the RI Science and Technology and Advisory Council) was particularly interested because of an experiment he had run. He had two tanks, one with East Coast sea stars and the other with sea stars from the West Coast. The two tanks shared the same recycled water source. The East Coast sea stars got sick first and then later the West Coast animals died.

Gomez-Chiarri described the disease—it shows up initially as white lesions on the top of the animals. Shortly afterward the animals disintegrate or waste away. “So something is in the water that is causing it,” said Gomez-Chiarri. Rising sea water temperatures could possibly be a trigger that increases stress on the animals and makes it easier for a pathogen to have effect, she added.

Gomez-Chiarri noted that Smolowitz has data on sea stars that she has been collecting from aquariums for the last 10 years. But even so there is little overall data about sea star wasting disease and so the study will approach the problem in several ways.

Caitlin, who is pursuing her masters in marine biological and environmental sciences, said the sea stars that have been captured will be put in tanks with different temperatures and different salinities. That might allow the researchers to determine what stressors will make the sea stars more susceptible to pathogens.

“We will take samples all the time for cultures in the lab and do some genomic studies,” she said adding that Wessel’s two-tank experiment will probably be repeated with some variations. The idea would be to catch the disease in its early stages before other pathogens can enter the lesions. The culprit could be a virus, a bacterium or perhaps a combination.

The researchers will be using one species for the study, Forbes’ sea stars, which are common in Rhode Island waters. But they will be looking for help outside their labs too. They will be seeking reports of sea star problems from divers and others who probe Rhode Island waters. The public can register observations on a special site to be set up. The researchers are interested in data such as location, time and of course photos.

But why the interest in sea stars? After all they are not anything that humans want to eat. In fact shellfish farmers would probably just as soon see their numbers decline as the critters are very adept at opening shells and devouring the innards.

“We want to have a more stable population,” said Caitlin noting that currently there is a decline in sea star population. Booms and crashes in marine life can cause other problems with the balances that are desirable in the sea. “We have to maintain the diversity of the community,” she said.

Said Gomez-Chiarri, population ups and downs have caused havoc in the past. “We have seen mussel crashes” which affect a big sea food industry. In warmer waters, a sea urchin decline (sea urchins are related to sea stars) resulted in an algae bloom that in turn smothered coral reefs. Coral reefs are important on many fronts.

All the researchers involved in the study think that the current grant will be insufficient to do all the work that will be needed. The grant they have could be considered seed money leading to a larger grant application to some other agency. Perhaps the issue can be tied into climate change.

But for Caitlin, her senior project disaster has turned into a golden opportunity that is furthering her education. “I was not expecting it to come together like this but it’s really incredible that it has.”

Related story in Providence journal:

R.I. researchers report mysterious decline in Ocean State’s starfish population by BY Richard Salit

Starfish, whose fanciful five-armed figure is symbolic of the seashore, have become veritable shooting stars of late — here one moment, gone the next….Read more