SFSU researchers study amphibian fungal disease

May 2, 2011 9:34:49 PM PDT
One of the major mysteries in science right now involves an ancient species that has gone unchanged for millions of years. But in the past half century, a threat has emerged that is killing off species in record numbers.

Amphibians are survivors -- a class of species that has outlasted 90 percent of all life on this planet though four mass extinctions. But now, after 360 million years, amphibians are in jeopardy.

"They did fine through the mass extinction events, but now they are dying," researcher Vance Vreedenburg, Ph.D., said.

Amphibians are victims of a new microscopic pathogen called chytrid that has spread worldwide. At San Francisco State University, Vreedenburg wants to save amphibians by finding out how and why.

"We're looking for a little microscopic organisms, fungi is what we're looking for," Vreedenburg said.

And now he has new tool: a technique he developed with researcher Tina Cheng that will allow them to trace the history of the pandemic by identifying its DNA on old lab specimens.

"Well, it tells us a lot," Vreedenburg said. "Whether humans were involved, how long it's been around, it tells us where it came from."

The significance of their paper extends well beyond amphibians. It is really about how a pandemic spreads among a species. Amphibians have been affected this time, but that pandemic could just as easily affect humans.

"Diseases tend to follow the same patterns, so we are looking at microscopic organisms," Cheng said.

To a degree, it as a branch of research we hope we never need, but one that might help us, someday.

In the meantime, there are amphibians on the brink, and that is significant enough.

"It tells me we should pay attention," Vreedenburg said. "Why are they in such bad straits now, compared to the last 360 million years?"

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