Could probiotics help tackle deadly amphibian disease?

I’m a conservation biologist and academic researcher, looking at ways to protect amphibians from the devastating chytridiomycosis disease (chytrid). This fungus has been associated with major population declines and extinctions of amphibians around the world, recently even reaching isolated populations in Madagascar.

There is not yet a cure for this disease in the wild, but we’re looking into the use of ‘probiotics’. We want to understand whether probiotic bacteria could prove effective against different strains of chytrid fungus. This will help to guide conservationists when using probiotics. 

Morelet's tree frog by Rachael Antwis
Morelet's tree frog. Image (c) Rachael Antwis

During my PhD at the University of Manchester, my field- work was based, among other places, at Las Cuevas Research Station in the Chiquibul Rainforest of Belize. Frogs in this area were of interest as some species have shown resilience despite the long term presence of the disease in the area. 

It’s here that we collected two species of frogs: the red-eyed tree frog and its critically endangered ‘cousin’, the Morelet’s tree frog. 

We swabbed the frogs’ skin and isolated out the friendly bacteria that live there and protect them from infectious diseases, including the chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. 

We found that in fact, very few bacteria were able to kill multiple stains of chytrid, and that some strains were particularly resilient to bacterial inhibition. 

This suggests that probiotics used for wild populations will need to be effective against the particular strain of chytrid in a given area, which may make the use of probiotics more complicated. It might be that using mixtures of bacteria could provide a more effective probiotic against the chytrid fungus.

Red-eyed tree frogs by Rachael Antwis
Red-eyed tree frogs. Image (c) Rachael Antwis

A lot more work is needed to identify an effective cure for this devastating disease. But as a scientist I believe we not only have a moral obligation to keep searching, but an ecological one too. Amphibians inhabit the middle of food chain, making up a vital part of our ecosystem. If they go then that could spell disaster for many more species. 

Find out more about ZSL’s scientific research. 

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