November 28, 2011

The Origin of the Amphibian Chytrid Fungus

The amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis: Bd) is the cause of the most spectacular loss of vertebrate biodiversity in recorded history. To date, at least 200 species have been driven extinct and hundreds more have suffered major declines. Even amphibians within the world's best protected ecosystems have been hard-hit, including California's mountain yellow-legged frog (Rana muscosa, Rana sierrae). This amphibian pathogen appears to have emerged in just the last 50 years, subsequently spreading around the world at lightning speed. 

So, where did Bd come from and what allowed its recent emergence? These are questions that researchers have asked since its description in 1999. Using the best available methods, molecular biologists from around the world have slowly but surely been zeroing in on the answers. In 2003 and 2007, studies by Morehouse et al. and Morgan et al., respectively, used evidence that Bd had little genetic variation to suggest that Bd was a recently emerged clone, not a pathogen with a long evolutionary history with amphibians. Results published in 2009 by James et al. supported these interpretations and suggested that the emergence of Bd may have been caused by a single hybridization event.

A just-published paper by Farrer et al. now advances this story even further. Using sequences of entire Bd genomes, Farrer et al. found evidence of multiple distinct Bd strains with apparently non-overlapping distributions. However, they also found a single lineage that was globally distributed, more virulent than the geographically isolated strains, and associated with worldwide frog die-offs. Based on this evidence, they suggest that contact between two previously isolated strains produced a hypervirulent strain that subsequently spread globally, causing amphibian declines and extinctions in its wake. They further postulate that the global amphibian trade was likely responsible for bringing these genetically isolated strains into contact with each other.

Another research group is using similar methods to provide an even more detailed view of the emergence of Bd as an amphibian pathogen, and will hopefully publish their results in the near future. I suspect that we haven't yet heard the final word of this evolving story. Given the likely role of human commerce in driving the emergence of Bd, there are important lessons here for biodiversity conservation in the Anthropocene. Namely, as our increasingly global economy moves goods around the world we will inevitably also move less desirable things, including invasive animals and plants but also invisible things like pathogens. The spread of introduced pathogens from their new introduction points will often be impossible to control, and decimation of naive animal and plant populations into which they come into contact is all but guaranteed. Bd provides a sobering example of what is to come.  

The citation for the latest paper is as follows: Farrer, R. A., et al. 2011. Multiple emergences of genetically diverse amphibian-infecting chytrids include a globalized hypervirulent recombinant lineage. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108:18732-18736. [link]

Back to The Mountain Yellow-legged Frog Site.

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