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Researcher from Maine Makes Leaps with Frog Study
01/07/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell
Dr. Joyce Longcore Holds Liquid Samples

Don't look now, but you're surrounded by fungus. It's not well studied or understood and much of it can't even be seen. What has come to light is the role of microscopic fungus in the unprecedented decline of amphibians world wide. What you may not know is that a scientist from Maine was at the forefront of that discovery, and that her work continues to aid researchers as they fight to save frogs.

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 Duration:
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Dr. Joyce Longcore Holds Image Blow-up Have you ever heard of a chytrid? What do you know about fungi? The everyday people see when they go outside or when they think about living things? If you're like most people, said Dr. Joyce Longcore, your world is full of people, pine trees, and bears, the big things.

"It's because we live in a macroscopic world, instead of a microscopic world, and so much of what goes on with fungi is hidden, it's either hidden underground, hidden inside a substrate, or hidden because it's microscopic," Longcore said. "In the case with chytrids, they're just plain microscopic."

And that's part of the problem because when frogs began disappearing back in the 1990s, there was no obvious cause. After 250 million years on the planet, frogs just seemed to be vanishing. Scientists with the National Zoo in Washington DC eventually hypothesized that some sort of fungus might be to blame. So they sent their frog tissue samples to Maine, where they wound up in Dr. Longcore's University of Maine laboratory. She's one of the few people in the world who specializes in microscopic fungi.

"The most important thing I've contributed is to isolate this particular fungus which is called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis," she said.

Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or BD, is a tiny chytrid fungus, first described and identified by Dr. Longcore and her long-distance colleagues at the National Zoo back in 1997. The fungus works by infecting the skin of the animal and starving it of oxygen. It's now understood that BD is to blame for many of the frog deaths observed throughout the world over the last two decades. The discovery was especially important because it was the first time that a chytrid fungus had ever been known to attack a vertebrate animal.

"She really is one of the pioneers in our community who has done all of the work that has led to all of the subsequent research on this fungus," said Brian Gratwicke of the National Zoo in Washington DC.

He is working on a worldwide "Frog Ark" project where species are taken from the wild to live in captivity. Some species, such as the Panamanian Golden Frog are now thought to be extinct in the wild. The project was able to transport some frogs to safety. But now, researchers are asking some tough questions, such as what do about the fungus that kills them and will rescued frogs ever be able to return to the wild.

"The answers to all those questions and more, depend on having access to living collections of chytrid fungus that have been isolated from frogs from different parts of the world," Gratwicke said.

Longcore has collected hundreds of chytrid samples, ones that have never been seen before, in places no one expected to find them. And the research goes beyond frogs. We now know there are chytrids that attack important crops like potatoes. And we know, thanks to Dr. Longcore's research, that vertebrate animals are not necessarily immune to disease caused by chytrid fungus. But for scientists to get a better picture of what microscopic fungi can do, first they need to find it. And that's where Dr. Longcore comes in. Now in her mid 70s, and with only a handful of people in the world working with chytrids, Longcore's not sure what will happen to her life's work when she's gone.

"I have a note on the refrigerator that says in case of my death or inability to function please call these people," said Loncore.

One of them is Rabern Simmons. He assists Dr. Longcore in her research but he may not have the luxury to take over as keeper of the Chytrids.

"People here on campus in our department, other grad students, have always just assumed that I'm going to take over for Joyce as some sort of apprentice in training, but then I have to remind them that Joyce is not an employee of the University and does not receive a salary," Simmons said.

In fact, her labor is unpaid, and her collection is unfunded except through her own private means, she credits her husband as her main benefactor. The University helps by supplying the space, but Longcore doesn't expect there to be a mad rush of donors fighting to write checks or help out anytime soon. In fact, she once questioned her own mentor, the late botanist Frederick K. Sparrow at the University of Michigan, whether what she was doing was even important.

"And he said, you have people around like us, because you never know when something will come up that you have the expertise to do," said Longcore. "That was shown to me in spades when I was able to help with the research on Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Just like some people are crazy about birds, and some people are crazy about butterflies, I happen to love chytrids."

But some people are paying attention to the little things: Longcore will be elected as a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in February of next year, joining notables such as Nobel prize winner Peter Agri, Stephen Jay Gould, and Margaret Mead.


Photos by Jennifer Mitchell.

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