Shell disease in crustaceans – just chitin recycling gone wrong?


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The exoskeletons of aquatic crustaceans and other arthropods contain chitin, a biopolymer of β-(1,4)-linked N-acetylglucosamine together with associated proteins. Despite the vast amounts of chitin within such animals little is found in sediments and open water because microorganisms rapidly degrade this following its loss after moulting or upon the animals' death. Shell disease syndrome is a worldwide disease condition that affects a wide range of crustaceans. It comes about as a result of bacterial degradation of the exoskeleton leading to unsightly lesions and even death if the underlying tissues become infected. There are at least two potential forms of the disease; one that appears to centre around chitin degradation and an additional form termed ‘epizootic’ shell disease, in which chitin degradation is of less significance. This account reviews our current understanding of the causative agents of this syndrome, assesses the potential economic consequences of the disease, and critically examines whether it is associated with anthropogenic disturbances including pollution. Overall, despite extensive studies during the last few decades, the potential links between faecal, heavy metal and insecticide pollution and shell disease are still unclear.