Researchers at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET) in Baltimore, Maryland investigate different marine diseases impacting west and east coast populations in the United States and potential implications of human impact on ocean ecosystems.
“Us, oysters, sea stars—everyone gets sick. Herpes is a virus. It’s not like herpes in humans--it’s just a virus that’s shaped similarly, so it’s morphologically similar,” she says. Burge is an assistant professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County as well as a scientist at the Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology (IMET) in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. Currently, her efforts are focused on combating a strain of the Ostreid herpesvirus 1, a form of herpes found in Pacific cupped oysters, Crassostrea gigas, and other bivalves that appears to be impacting populations globally.
Viruses in oysters work more or less similarly to how they work in humans and other land mammals. Viruses are incredibly small entities that infect the cells of living hosts, injecting genetic information into the cells and recruiting the cell’s enzymes to reproduce copies of the virus. Some viruses take years to show symptoms, but others, like the Ostreid herpesvirus 1, infect baby oysters or “spats” and usually cause death within only a week.
Efforts to combat diseases in oysters have been ongoing for decades. On the east coast, pollution, overharvesting, and overdevelopment along with viral diseases like Dermo and multi-nucleated unknown (MSX), which are both caused by viruses, have severely impacted oyster populations in portions of the Chesapeake Bay with higher salinity. Fortunately, due to selective breeding efforts, particularly focused on the Virginia oyster, or Crassostrea virginica, restorative efforts are projecting a more positive future for oysters.
“They’re starting to see some of this oyster restoration working. There’s more folks now engaging in aquaculture too as opposed to just dredging. There’s a concerted effort, and it’s really great to see,” says Burge. Burge, who recently moved to Baltimore from Seattle, is encouraged by the support for the Chesapeake’s oyster populations, and hopes to see the same progress made on the Pacific oyster.
“This oyster virus is one Dr. Burge has been working on for thirteen years now,” says Carolyn Wilkinson, an undergraduate student studying biotechnology at University of Maryland, University College. She just began an internship with Burge at IMET in August, where she helps research marine pathogens by isolating and cloning oyster genes.