The Role of Symbiotic Bacteria in Disease Resistance and Conservation of the Critically Endangered Panamanian Golden Frog

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


Amphibian populations have undergone unprecedented declines in recent decades. Many of these declines are due to the spread of the cutaneous fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), which causes the disease chytridiomycosis. The Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) has not been seen in the wild since Bd spread through western Panama. In response to initial declines, golden frogs were collected from wild populations and placed in captive colonies with the goal of future reintroductions. An understanding of this species' natural defense mechanisms against Bd is needed for reintroduction to be successful. Previous studies indicate that cutaneous bacteria are an important defense mechanism for some amphibians and applying antifungal bacteria to the skin of Bd-susceptible amphibians (probiotic therapy) can prevent chytridiomycosis. Therefore, the goals of my dissertation were to characterize the bacterial community of A. zeteki and determine if probiotic therapy could be used to prevent chytridiomycosis in this species. I initially characterized the bacterial community of wild and captive golden frogs using samples collected prior to the initial declines and after approximately eight years in captivity. I found that the community structure of the microbiota was significantly different between wild and captive frogs; however, the offspring of the original captive frogs still shared 70% of their microbial community with wild frogs. Then, I characterized the Bd-inhibitory properties of 484 bacteria isolated from 11 species of free-living Panamanian amphibians. I found a large proportion of bacteria (75.2%) had the ability to inhibit Bd and this trait was widely distributed among bacterial taxa, although there was also significant variation within bacterial genera in their ability to inhibit Bd growth. I then experimentally tested the ability of four of these isolates to prevent chytridiomycosis in captive golden frogs. None of them successfully prevented infection; however, there were several frogs that cleared infection and this was correlated with composition of the bacteria initially present on their skin. Overall these results demonstrate that the structure of microbial communities of A. zeteki are important to host health and building on this might provide the best hope for reintroducing this iconic species back to its native habitat.



amphibians, symbiosis, chytridiomycosis, microbial ecology, probiotics