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Natural Bacteria Helps Frogs Fight Deadly Skin Disease, Say Researchers

Oct 10, 2015 10:11 PM EDT

When we get the sniffles our first instinct is to go to the pharmacy, find the right medicine and wash it down with hot soup and tea. Well, animals also have to protect themselves from infectious disease--and it seems that frogs don't have to look much farther than the skin on their own backs, according to researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). 

One of those potential threats is chytridiomycosis--a fungal disease that has rapidly spread across the world and threatens about 500 amphibian species. This disease destroys amphibians' skin and ultimately leads to death, according to a news release

Researchers tested an antibiotic used to fight the deadly infectious skin disease on frogs. While the antibiotic did not cure the disease, it did cause the frogs to lose weight. However, the frogs' natural skin bacterium was able to respond to the infection and fight off the disease, according to their study.

"It turned out that in this experiment, it wasn't about a single bacterium being protective, but rather the structure of the whole community was important in infection and frog health," Jeni Walke, a postdoctoral associate in Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech, said the release. 

For their experiment, researchers collected bullfrogs from a pond in Giles County, Virginia. About half of the frogs were already infected with the fungus that causes chytridiomycosis. The bullfrogs were broken up into six experimental groups to compare the rate the disease spread when the frogs were either treated with antibiotics or left alone. 

Chytridiomycosis has led to significant biodiversity loss, according to the release. Amphibian behavior, biological defenses, and environmental conditions all play a role in whether or not a frog becomes infected. However, researchers believe that human-driven changes such as climate change, invasive species, pollution, and habitat degradation are making the disease worse for the frogs. 

"Chytrid disease is devastating large numbers of amphibian communities in many parts of the world," Simon Malcomber, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology, said in a statement. "The study shows the importance of amphibian microbiomes in mediating the effects of chytrid disease, and offers hope of limiting the infection."

This study, recently published in the journal PLOS ONEwill help researchers further understand why some frogs' are equipped with the naturally occurring bacteria on their skin to fight off the deadly infection, while others remain defenseless. 

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