The Great Barrier Reef has had a rough couple of decades. Along with coral bleaching, oil spills, cyclones, and over-fishing, a major predator has been eating its way through the reef. The crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) feeds on coral polyps and outbreaks can quickly decimate reef ecosystems. Outbreaks are aided by over-fishing, which removes natural predators of the starfish. Acquiring control over the COTS population is a vital step to returning the Great Barrier Reef to health.

Scientists from Australia recently sequenced the genomes of COTS from the Great Barrier Reef and from Okinawa, Japan. Through genome comparisons and protein studies, the authors are working to identify the exact genes that produce species-specific peptides. These communication peptides are emitted by individuals into the water to attract other COTS to their location before spawning events and are very important to the species’ reproductive success.

These peptides could serve as a foundation for developing bio-control mechanisms for the COTS. If the correct peptides can be duplicated, they could serve as lures for COTS traps. Alternatively, it’s possible to modify the peptides in a way that prevents COTS from detecting them, thus impeding pre-spawning aggregations. As with any type of pest control, however, thorough experimentation is needed to determine if it is both safe for the COTS and for any other species in the water.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Vanessa Knutson for her comments on this article. Vanessa is currently pursuing a PhD in the Giribet Lab at Harvard University.
Managing Correspondant: Zane Wolf
Image Credit: iStock
Related SITN Articles: Home is where the healthy reefs are: insights into coral recruitment; Removing Threat from Invasive Species with Genetic Engineering?
Popular Press LinksScientists sniff out way to lure reef-killing crown-of-thorns starfish to their death – The Guardian

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