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Clues to Disease Evolution Hidden in the Oyster Archive

Are present-day oysters more tolerant to their notorious Dermo parasite? Lauren Huey looks to the past to find out.

Lauren Huey. ©VASG

Lauren Huey. ©VASG

By Chris Patrick, staff writer

The word “archive” probably conjures thoughts of musty, yellowing documents. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) has a different kind of archive—one that’s made up of oyster tissue.

Since the 1960s, VIMS researchers have collected and preserved oysters from Chesapeake Bay to monitor the prevalence of Dermo, a parasite that has caused massive oyster die-offs since its detection in 1949.

Now, Lauren Huey, a Virginia Sea Grant graduate research fellow at VIMS, will spend the next two years rootling through the oyster-tissue archive to track the disease’s evolution.

“It’s a really cool project because it’s something that you normally can’t study, since evolution occurs over such long time scales,” Huey says. The oyster archive makes this study possible.

Dermo still causes mortality in Chesapeake Bay oysters, but bay-wide, shellfish seem to be recovering from historically low numbers. Huey thinks one reason for this recovery is that oysters have become more tolerant to Dermo.

Huey will look at how the parasite has changed in size, shape, and where it infects the oyster. She’ll also note the number and size of eggs in infected oysters. More eggs suggest that an oyster is more tolerant to Dermo.

Egg quantity and quality could indirectly measure Dermo tolerance. If an oyster is less tolerant to Dermo, it’s spending more energy to fight it off and has less to spend on making lots of eggs. But if an oyster is more tolerant to Dermo, it can spend less energy on fighting Dermo and more on making lots of healthy eggs.

As part of her Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellowship, Huey plans to translate her findings into posters and handouts to help raise awareness and knowledge of Chesapeake Bay oysters and Dermo. Huey, who has experience making scientific illustrations, says, “I think that art is really important in making science accessible.”

She will design posters and handouts with her outreach partner, the Integration and Application Network, an initiative of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science that produces syntheses and assessments on environmental issues in Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Huey is currently earning her master’s degree from VIMS and received her bachelor’s degree in biological oceanography from Rutgers University in 2015. She’s from Ridgefield, CT.