Starfish are a beautiful sight, but what's happening to them isn't pretty.
Deformed creatures are coming into Mya Breitbart's lab in St. Petersburg, FL.
She's one of the nation's premier virus hunters.
"This is a widespread phenomenon that's wiping out populations and no one knows the cause,” says Breitbart.
She has pioneered a new way to help diagnose the problem. It’s called viral metagenomics.
The method identifies mysterious marine and human metagenomics viruses through DNA analysis. Right now there is no single test for viruses, so it takes lots of tests and time.
"I think it's really important that we gain a baseline so that we're not always reacting to these epidemics and trying to play catch up,” Breitbart says. "We can actually be ahead of things for once."
Aquarium curator Butsch Ringelspaugh hopes her new technique will help find answers.
"One of the biggest things [is] finding out what's going on with the sea-stars and figuring out how to treat them or avoid getting animals in that might be affected, and might transmit whatever issue they have to other animals,” says Ringelspaugh.
Breitbart’s new technique helped her earn the title of one of the most brilliant young scientists in the country.
"You don't want to be in the situation, that quite frankly we are in now, where lots and lots of animals have died and we're still scrambling to figure out what's causing it," she explains.
Popular Science magazine chose Breitbart because her discoveries are laying the groundwork for tomorrow's breakthroughs. Her students are spreading her syllabus as they move on in their careers.
"I think it's really going to change the way we do science in the future," Breitbart says.
Right now her new method may just be the key to keeping the starfish alive.