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Oct 4, 2014

Teach Locally, Research Globally: Biology Alum Travels the Globe for Research

From Harrisonburg to Germany by way of Madagascar, M.S. Biology alum Molly Bletz's (M.S. 2013) work with amphibians has taken her across the globe. In some ways, the world spanning travels of this graduate student mirrors the research journey of her advisor, Dr. Reid Harris, whose research on the nesting behaviors of salamanders suggested that antifungal resistance was transferred from a mother to her eggs.

3 Mada Frogs

A chytrid fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, was first described in 1999 and causes a skin disease in amphibians that is often widespread and lethal. Bd has a devastating impact on worldwide amphibian populations; it has the ability to infect all of the 7000 species of amphibians that have been tested and can therefore cause rapid population decline.The resulting skin disease severely and fatally impairs respiration in diseased animals. Interestingly not all amphibians infected with Bd die, thus leading to identification of "resistant" amphibians and interestingly populations of skin-dwelling (symbiotic bacteria) that discourage Bd growth.

For Bletz, it all began when she began her thesis work with Dr. Harris. By this time, Dr. Harris and colleagues had identified bacteria that inhibited fungus growth. Bletz investigated how to most effectively administer an antifungal bacterial species to the skin of amphibians. While in Dr. Harris' lab, Molly mentored several JMU undergraduates and is the lead author on a review on the use of probiotics published in Ecology Letters, a top journal in the ecology field. A probiotic is a microorganism that has healthful, or beneficial properties for humans or animals.

Molly's experiment was to determine an effective method to transmit the probiotic to the skin of amphibians by administering it to experimental ponds and determining transmission rates to her experimental animals. She found that the best approach to maximize transmission of the probiotic was to provide each amphibian with a "probiotic bath" and also put the probiotic in the pond water.

Subsequent to this work, Molly and Dr. Harris began a "side project" which has blossomed into her doctoral project, which she is completing at Technische Universitat Braunschweig in Braunschweig, Germany in the lab of Dr. Miguel Vences. Molly will focus on the frog populations of Madagascar where there are 500 unique species of frogs. These frogs are also very recently threatened by chytrid fungus. So far Molly, with assistance from undergraduate researchers in the Harris lab, has isolated 3500 bacterial samples from 120 species of Malagasy frogs and tested them for their ability to inhibit the growth of the chytrid fungus. Importantly, Molly has found numerous promising probiotic candidates. When confirmed, she will create a bank of probiotics that can be used to protect the Malagasy frog species threatened by lethal Bd infection. Molly has now extended her work to partner with zoos in Europe and the USA to apply the probiotic candidates to frogs to see which isolates will colonize and persist on the frogs. This work, as well as Molly, has nearly come full circle.