Panama

Around the globe, a deadly pathogen threatens to wipe out entire populations of amphibians.

What seems like science fiction is actually a reality at JMU.

Biology professor Reid Harris and several students are researching a bacteria that could combat a fungal disease caused by the fungal pathogen batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.

The disease, chytridiomycosis, seriously threatens amphibians and has already brought some species to extinction.

The Smithsonian Channel partnered with Harris and filmed him and the students assisting him for a documentary about Harris' lab research.

Harris' research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, which also gave grant money to labs at Virginia Tech and Villanova University to study the disease.

The film, titled "Mission Critical," premiered Oct. 11.

Harris attended the premiere at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., along with 170 other attendees, and Harris was also part of a panel to answer questions about the documentary.

"The audience was really engaged," Harris said. "They were really interested in what we were talking about, and there was a pretty even question distribution."

The film features Harris, former master's student Carly Muletz and former honors student Jill Myers working in the lab.

In 2009, Myers took a class on mathematical models in biology taught by Harris. At the end of the class, Harris asked her to help him with his research.

Currently, Myers lives in Massachusetts after graduating from JMU in 2010. Muletz is now a doctoral student at the University of Maryland after graduating from JMU's graduate school last May.

During their time at JMU, Myers and Muletz worked with Harris to learn about the disease and how it's affecting the animal population.

The documentary also follows Brian Gratwicke from the National Zoo and several of his colleagues on a trip to Panama to study amphibians.

Harris said filmmakers used the footage of him, Muletz and Myers to highlight the laboratory side of the issue.

The documentary will be shown on the Smithsonian Channel periodically.

"Amphibians all over the world are being affected, which is very concerning," Myers said. "A few species seem to be immune, but many other species quickly go extinct or experience population declines."

Harris' research began by studying the behavior of salamanders taking care of their eggs and the protective bacteria females carried. He realized, throughout the course of his research, that the fungal pathogen was more important to study.

There can be small amounts of a fungal pathogen, which causes the disease, present on an amphibian's skin, but when the pathogen load increases the amphibian becomes infected with chytridiomycosis.

This disease is hitting amphibian populations the hardest in the Western United States, central and South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, according to Harris.

"In Panama, 40 percent of frog species had been greatly reduced or had gone extinct by this fungus." Harris said.

Frog species have beenthe most affected, according to Muletz.

"Generally, frogs have been shown to be more susceptible to declines driven by chytridiomycosis than salamanders," Muletz said. "Mostly endemic frogs have suffered the most devastating declines."

Muletz's research focused on how certain bacteria can be added to the soil and then transmitted to a salamander. The bacteria then helps protect the salamander from being infected with the fungal pathogen.

The Harris lab is working to increase the quantity of natural bacteria already on the amphibians to fight the fungus.

"Previous studies have shown that augmenting the number of these bacterial cells on the skins of amphibians helps reduce the infection load," Myers said.

Early research is promising, according to Harris.

"It seems to be working," Harris said. "That gives us some hope that it will work for other species as well."

Contact Joshua Hahn at hahnja@dukes.jmu.edu.