Mount Union College Biology Professors Attempt To Develop Fungus-Resistant Frog

April 15, 2010

Mount Union College professors, Dr. Brandon Sheafor and Dr. Jonathan Scott, are attempting to develop fungus-resistant super frogs to help prevent the extinction of many amphibians by a potent killer fungus.

On Saturday, February 24, Sheafor and Scott, along with Cleveland Metroparks Zoo researcher Kathy Krynak and several Mount Union students, performed a series of simple tests on seven golden frogs. Scott said frogs secrete antimicrobial peptides into their skin mucous and the relative strength of those peptides may determine whether a frog can survive the fungal infection. These scientists hope to selectively breed golden frogs with potent antifungal mucous.

The fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, was the first identified in the late 1990s and has been implicated in massive amphibian population decline, especially in Australia and the Americas.

'There is no practical way to eliminate the fungus from the environment,' Scott said. 'Attempting to make golden frogs resistant to the fungus is the only way they will be able to survive in the wild.'

'All we need is a few individuals to fight off the fungus and pass that ability on to their offspring,' Sheafor said.

Sheafor said the golden frog is culturally significant in Panama and is considered good luck, a national symbol equivalent to the bald eagle in America.
'The golden frog is a cultural symbol we've let disappear,' Sheafor said.

Their goal is to be able to breed anti-fungal super frogs to repopulate the rainforests of Panama, where they have been nearly exterminated by the fungus.

'There are fewer than 1,000 golden frogs left on the planet and most are in captivity,' Sheafor said. 'And if they weren't being held in captivity,' Scott added, 'They would be extinct for sure.'

Once the fungus is found in an area, it's only a matter of months before it takes out about 90 percent of an amphibian population. The worldwide struggle has been going on for years, but scientists believe the fungus has become more rampant in recent decades due to global warming.
'The golden frog is a very beautiful and wonderful animal whose extinction may be related to human activity,' Scott said. 'You feel a responsibility to make up for human behavior when you can.'

Helping the golden frog will not only help amphibians, but humans as well, Scott said. Frogs, which are the most common amphibian, are a vital part of the food chain as both prey for larger animals and feeders on insects that could spread disease. Also, some frog species produce a chemical used as a pain reliever for humans and some are linked to a chemical that disables the virus causing AIDS.

Sheafor said he got involved in the project through Dr. Elizabeth Davidson, an alumna of Mount Union College and research professor at Arizona State University. On her sabbatical, Davidson came back Mount Union to teach. Sheafor then, for his sabbatical, went out to Arizona to begin research on amphibian decline.

Sheafor, Scott and several Mount Union biology students will be heading back to the Cleveland Zoo on Sunday, March 25 to continue their mission to protect the golden frogs and other amphibians from the killer fungus.

Students working on the project include seniors Rob Brucker from Mt. Gilead and Rebecca Clough from Uhrichsville, and juniors Maureen Hinton from Canal Fulton and Amanda Kuhn from Louisville.

'The ultimate goal of the project is to get the frogs to the point where they can return to their natural environment,' Scott said.

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