Unprotected Coral Harbor Herpes

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Herpes infection threatens thousands of students flocking to scenic beaches this spring break. At the same time, offshore from those tropical paradises, coral reefs may face an even greater threat from herpes viruses.

Viral infection may be one of the reasons the world’s coral populations have been plummeting. Microbiologists recently found numerous varieties of the herpes virus infecting coral.

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"We were shocked to find that so many coral viruses were in the herpes family," Rebecca Vega-Thurber, a microbiologist at Oregon State University, said in a press release.

Understanding the herpes hazard could lead to diagnoses for previously mysterious ailments affecting coral reefs.

"We've identified 22 kinds of emerging disease that affect corals, but still don't know the pathogens that cause most of them," Vega-Thurber said. "Most researchers have looked only at bacteria. But we suspect viruses may play a role in this as well, and it's important to learn more about what is causing this problem. Corals are the building blocks of the tropical seas."

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For now, the exact connection between the herpes virus and most of those 22 diseases remains unclear.

"Just because you harbor a virus doesn't mean you are getting sick from it," Vega-Thurber said. "This is part of what we have to pin down with further research."

"Corals are one of the oldest animal life-forms, evolving around 500 million years ago, and herpes is a very old family of viruses that can infect almost every kind of animal,” Vega-Thurber said. “Herpes and corals may have evolved together."

The research on coral diseases was published in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology.

Photo: Plate coral in the seas of Papua New Guinea. Credit: Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons.

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