Decimation by sea star wasting disease and rapid genetic change in a keystone species, Pisaster ochraceus

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Jul 3;115(27):7069-7074. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1800285115. Epub 2018 Jun 18.


Standing genetic variation enables or restricts a population's capacity to respond to changing conditions, including the extreme disturbances expected to increase in frequency and intensity with continuing anthropogenic climate change. However, we know little about how populations might respond to extreme events with rapid genetic shifts, or how population dynamics may influence and be influenced by population genomic change. We use a range-wide epizootic, sea star wasting disease, that onset in mid-2013 and caused mass mortality in Pisaster ochraceus to explore how a keystone marine species responded to an extreme perturbation. We integrated field surveys with restriction site-associated DNA sequencing data to (i) describe the population dynamics of mortality and recovery, and (ii) compare allele frequencies in mature P. ochraceus before the disease outbreak with allele frequencies in adults and new juveniles after the outbreak, to identify whether selection may have occurred. We found P. ochraceus suffered 81% mortality in the study region between 2012 and 2015, and experienced a concurrent 74-fold increase in recruitment beginning in late 2013. Comparison of pre- and postoutbreak adults revealed significant allele frequency changes at three loci, which showed consistent changes across the large majority of locations. Allele frequency shifts in juvenile P. ochraceus (spawned from premortality adults) were consistent with those seen in adult survivors. Such parallel shifts suggest detectable signals of selection and highlight the potential for persistence of this change in subsequent generations, which may influence the resilience of this keystone species to future outbreaks.

Keywords: disease; marine; mass mortality; natural selection; rapid evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Alleles*
  • Animals
  • Gene Frequency*
  • Starfish / genetics*
  • Wasting Syndrome / genetics*
  • Wasting Syndrome / veterinary*