Graduate student’s key discovery: Finding Nemo’s deadly virus

Elizabeth Scherbatskoy

Elizabeth Scherbatskoy

Nemo may not be lost anymore, but he’s still in hot water.

Over the past decade, outbreaks of a deadly disease have wracked the clownfish tanks at a number of aquaculture facilities in the U.S., mystifying producers and scientists alike. These epizootics have left thousands of clownfish sick and dying, and the search for answers has been frustrating to many.

Fortunately, some light has been shed on the issue. In a breakthrough discovery by UF College of Veterinary Medicine graduate student Elizabeth Scherbatskoy, a novel picornavirus has been isolated from the sick fish that is believed to be the culprit responsible for these mass mortality events.

Picornaviruses are a diverse group of viruses that infect many different species, and include genera such as enteroviruses and rhinoviruses, the causative agents of poliovirus and the common cold, respectively. Fortunately, this picornavirus is not considered to be zoonotic, unlike other members of the family of viruses it belongs to.

Scherbatskoy, a Ph.D. student in the college’s department of infectious diseases and immunology, recently presented her findings at the North Florida Marine Science Symposium at the Whitney Marine Lab in St. Augustine and the Eastern Fish Health Workshop in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Scherbatskoy received the best student presentation award for her  research regarding this novel clownfish picornavirus at both meetings.

Techniques such as cell culture, transmission electron microscopy, polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, amplification and genome sequencing were used in the discovery of this picomavirus. Scherbatskoy is currently working to create improved diagnostic tools to rapidly screen for the virus in sick individuals. Future work is planned to confirm that this picomavirus is the cause of the die-offs.

Elizabeth Scherbatskoy

Elizabeth Scherbatskoy presents her findings at the North Florida Marine Science Symposium.

“I believe it is important to get to the bottom of this issue, not only for the sake of clownfish aquaculture, but also because of the potential ecological implications of the virus,” said Scherbatskoy, who works under the mentorship of Dr. Thomas Waltzek, an assistant professor with the college’s department of infectious diseases and immunology. “It has not yet been determined if the clownfish picornavirus is present in the wild, although a number of other picornaviruses have recently been isolated from wild fish.”

Scherbatskoy hopes to be able to determine whether or not this is the case with this virus, as it could be causing significant damage to wild clownfish populations.

“Equally as important, if clownfish aquaculture takes a turn for the worse, pressure could be placed back on our coral reefs for commercial clownfish collection, which can be highly destructive to the surrounding environment,” she said.


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March-April 2018

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