NSF awards UTIA faculty grant to study fungal pathogen of amphibians
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – An emerging pathogen that devours the skin of salamanders will be the subject of a new study funded by the National Science Foundation.
Matt Gray and Debra Miller, both faculty members in the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture Center for Wildlife Health within the UT Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, have been awarded a $2.5 million grant to lead a collaboration among scientists from Vanderbilt University, University of Massachusetts-Boston, Texas Tech University, University of California-Santa Barbara and Washington State University.
The research will expand the current understanding of a fungal pathogen that is causing salamander population declines in Europe. Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal, is an emerging pathogen that devours the skin of salamanders.
Thought to originate from Asia, Bsal is spreading throughout Europe, and scientists are now concerned of the fungus spreading to North America through international trade. As a preemptive measure, Gray and Miller, along with their research partners, will study the epidemiology of Bsal in an effort to find ways to combat the fungus.
Gray, Miller and their team will focus on three main objectives: (1) identify the infection pathways and environmental conditions under which Bsal spreads, (2) evaluate salamander immune responses to infection, and (3) characterize the pathogenesis of Bsal. Their focal species will be the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), which is one of the most widely distributed salamander species in North America. The eastern newt is known to be susceptible to Bsal. With many reptile and amphibian species in the U.S. being threatened by infectious diseases, such as snake fungal disease and Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd or chytrid fungus), the timing and need for this research is significant.
"With eastern North America as a global hotspot for salamander biodiversity, this research will allow science-based decisions to be made on Bsal response actions most likely to thwart an outbreak in the USA and elsewhere," Gray indicates.
Miller, a wildlife pathologist with a split position in the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, adds, "The lesions I see under the microscope are significant, destroying the epidermis in highly susceptible species, which is deadly to amphibians that rely on their skin for osmoregulation and respiration."
Gray adds, "To our knowledge, Earth has never seen a wildlife disease outbreak like Bsal's cousin – Bd – which has caused population declines globally in greater than 200 amphibian species and some species extinctions. It is too early to know what the scale of Bsal emergence will be; however, we hope that by working in multi-disciplinary research collaborations like this one that we will be able to identify plausible treatment and management options quickly that lessen the impact of this recently discovered pathogen."
In addition to research, this award will support one post-doctoral scientist, one veterinary scientist, three graduate students, and multiple undergraduate research technicians at UTIA. There will also be an outreach component, including STEM school engagement, guest lectures, international training opportunities, and research findings will be delivered monthly to the Technical Advisory Committee of the North American Bsal Task Force. Gray begins co-chairing the committee this month.
More information about the UTIA NSF grant and other Bsal research performed by the UTIA Center for Wildlife Health can be found at ag.tennessee.edu/fwf/bsalproject.
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