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Pathogen pollution and the emergence of a deadly amphibian pathogen


Correspondence: Valerie J. McKenzie, Fax: 303-492-8699, E-mail:


Imagine a single pathogen that is responsible for mass mortality of over a third of an entire vertebrate class. For example, if a single pathogen were causing the death, decline and extinction of 30% of mammal species (including humans), the entire world would be paying attention. This is what has been happening to the world's amphibians – the frogs, toads and salamanders that are affected by the chytrid fungal pathogen, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (referred to as Bd), which are consequently declining at an alarming rate. It has aptly been described as the worst pathogen in history in terms of its effects on biodiversity (Kilpatrick et al. 2010). The pathogen was only formally described about 13 years ago (Longcore et al. 1999), and scientists are still in the process of determining where it came from and investigating the question: why now? Healthy debate has ensued as to whether Bd is a globally endemic organism that only recently started causing high mortality due to shifting host responses and/or environmental change (e.g. Pounds et al. 2006) or whether a virulent strain of the pathogen has rapidly disseminated around the world in recent decades, affecting new regions with a vengeance (e.g. Morehouse et al. 2003; Weldon et al. 2004; Lips et al. 2008). We are finally beginning to shed more light on this question, due to significant discoveries that have emerged as a result of intensive DNA-sequencing methods comparing Bd isolates from different amphibian species across the globe. Evidence is mounting that there is indeed a global panzootic lineage of Bd (BdGPL) in addition to what appear to be more localized endemic strains (Fisher et al. 2009; James et al. 2009; Farrer et al. 2011). Additionally, BdGPL appears to be a hypervirulent strain that has resulted from the hybridization of different Bd strains that came into contact in recent decades, and is now potentially replacing the less-virulent endemic strains of the pathogen (Farrer et al. 2011). In a new study published in this issue of Molecular Ecology, Schloegel et al. (2012) identify an additional unique Bd lineage that is endemic to the Atlantic Brazilian rainforests (Bd-Brazil) and provide striking evidence that the Bd-Brazil lineage has sexually recombined with the BdGPL lineage in an area where the two lineages likely came into contact as a result of classic anthropogenically mediated ‘pathogen pollution’(see below). Fungal pathogens, including Bd, have the propensity to form recombinant lineages when allopatric populations that have not yet formed genetic reproductive barriers are provided with opportunities to intermingle, and virulent strains may be selected for because they tend to be highly transmissible (Fisher et al. 2012). As Schloegel et al. (2012) point out, the demonstrated ability for Bd to undergo meiosis may also mean that it has the capacity to form a resistant spore stage (as yet undiscovered), based on extrapolation from other sexually reproducing chytrids that all have spore stages.