Researchers Create Crown of Thorns’ Kryptonite

Written by on October 10, 2012 in Marine Life

Crown of thorns starfish are devastating the Great Barrier Reef and researchers may have found a way to stop them.  Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University have discovered that a simple protein mixture is capable of destroying crown of thorns starfish in only 24 hours.

Crown of thorns starfish. Photo credit: NOAA.

Crown of thorns starfish. Photo credit: NOAA.

“A crown of thorns outbreak can destroy from 40 to 90 percent of the corals on a reef and over the past 50 years it has caused more damage than bleaching,” explained researcher Dr. Jairo Rivera Posada.  “There were massive outbreaks in many countries in the 1960s and 1980s and a new one is well underway on the Great Barrier Reef.”

The protein mixture is used in labs to grow bacteria, and Dr. Posada uses it to grow Vibrio, bacteria that live in starfish.  He wondered if he could manipulate the Vibrio enough to damage its host.

The solution caused the bacteria to grow and attack the starfish.  The starfish suffered acute allergic reactions from the attack, fell apart, and died.  The bacteria also spread to nearby starfish that weren’t directly infected.

“I was only hoping to impair their immune systems – so the fact that they died so quickly was a great surprise,” said Posada.

Currently, if a starfish outbreak occurs at a high-value or protected site, they are controlled through individual poison injections.  This is a slow process that can’t reach all the starfish.  If Posada’s new method works, it would be much more effective.

More testing is require before this technique could be used in the wild.  The researchers first need to learn if the bacteria is capable of harming other creatures, as well.

Posada concluded that “Any attempts to control these outbreaks will be futile without also addressing the root cause of outbreaks, including loss of starfish predators as well as increased nutrients that provide food for larval starfishes.”

Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Photo credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Photo credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.

To learn more:

Crown of thorns starfish. Photo credit: David Burdick, NOAA.

Crown of thorns starfish. Photo credit: David Burdick, NOAA.

Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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