The Structure and Function of Amphibian Skin Bacterial Communities and Their Role in Susceptibility to a Fungal Pathogen

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Virginia Tech


As part of the ongoing loss of global biodiversity, amphibian populations are experiencing declines and extinctions. A primary factor in these declines is the skin disease chytridiomycosis, which is caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Recent research suggests that the amphibian skin microbiota has anti-Bd activity and may be an important factor in host disease resistance. However, little is known about the basic ecology of this host-microbe symbiosis, such as how much variation there is in microbial symbionts among host species and populations, and the nature of symbiont transmission, culturability, and function. My dissertation research addressed these basic questions in microbial ecology, as well as used a novel system to examine the long-standing ecological theory of community structure-function relationships. First, host-specificity, population-level variation and potential environmental transmission of the microbiota were examined by conducting a field survey of bacterial communities from bullfrogs, newts, pond water, and pond substrate at a single pond, and newts from multiple ponds. There was variation among amphibian host species and populations in their skin symbionts, and, in a host species-specific manner, amphibian skin may select for microbes that are generally in low abundance in the environment. Second, the culturability of amphibian skin bacteria was assessed by directly comparing culture-dependent and -independent bacterial sequences from the same individuals. Although less than 7% of the amphibian skin microbes were captured using R2A medium, most of the dominant bacteria were represented in our cultures, and similar patterns of diversity among four amphibian species were captured with both approaches. Third, the relationship between microbial community structure and function and selective forces shaping structure and function were examined in bullfrogs by tracking microbial community structure and function following experimental manipulation of the skin microbiota and pathogen exposure. Results of this study demonstrated that Bd is a selective force on cutaneous bacterial community structure and function, and suggest that beneficial states of bacterial structure and function may serve to limit infection and negative fitness consequences of Bd exposure. Using a combination of observational and experimental approaches, my dissertation contributes to understanding structure-function relationships of these complex symbiotic communities of vertebrates.



amphibian, microbiota, transmission, symbiosis, structure-function, disease, fungus