A good virus comes to the rescue of California’s abalone

MONTEREY — The light under the old wharf is dim, and the sound of barking sea lions fills the salty air. It’s high tide, and water surges around Art Seavey’s feet as he tends to his abalone farm, which not too long ago was imperiled by a devastating bacterial infection.

“The abalone would go off feed — and just start to wither,” said Seavey, co-owner of the Monterey Abalone Co. “And basically once they started withering, it was over.”

Now, two years into a viral pandemic that is plaguing humankind, West Coast scientists are hailing a different kind of virus, one that is helping to protect California’s beloved abalone. —the little-known virus is shielding the giant sea snails from a deadly pathogen that has threatened their populations up and down the California coast.

“There are some viruses that are good,” said Steffanie Strathdee, co-director of the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “You know, sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

How a virus became an unexpected ally in the quest to save California’s abalone is an intriguing tale — one that captivates scientists as they unravel the mysteries of the natural world.

A white abalone shows its distinctive face, with two long cephalic tentacles below its eyes. The tentacles are how the abalone sense the surrounding environment. Kristin Aquilino raises thousands of white abalone at the Bodega Marine Lab to replenish wild populations in an effort to save the species from extinction. (Photo by John Burgess/ Press Democrat) 

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For millennia, the Golden State’s coastline has been home to some of the richest abalone diversity in the world, with seven native species that read like a rainbow: red, green, pink, flat, white, black and pinto. Indigenous people treasured them as an important food source and used their shimmering shells to adorn ceremonial clothing.

Abalone populations exploded after California’s sea otters — the mollusks’ main predators — were hunted to near extinction by European and Russian settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A thriving commercial fishery emerged. Abalone diving turned into a favorite California pastime, as the shellfish became the state’s equivalent of Maine’s famed lobster. Abalone became renowned for its sweet, delicate flavor and was typically saturated with butter and garlic like a large escargot.

The frenzy for abalone meat, however, nearly depleted all seven species by the mid-1970s, when federal and state agencies stepped in to save the few remaining abalone by restricting harvesting.

A decade later, a new threat emerged. Scientists noticed that black abalone in the Channel Islands were shriveling up and dying at a rapid rate. Researchers named the phenomenon Withering Syndrome and identified the culprit as a bacterium that infects the digestive lining of abalone, crippling their ability to absorb food.

The disease quickly spread up the coast, reaching as far north as Bodega Bay. Wherever abalone were found, the bacterium followed.

When the warm waters of the 1997-98 El Niño hit, Withering Syndrome surged.

“Normally there was a low percentage of animals with clinical signs of …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment

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