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Ask the Expert: Dr. Lisa Belden

Frogs, toads, newts. Did you know these amphibians fill an important ecological niche—and that their populations are declining rapidly worldwide? 

One cause for their population decrease is Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), an often fatal fungus that attacks their skin. Morris Animal Foundation–funded researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University set out to address this threat.

What they discovered might surprise you—and help save thousands of amphibian species: Some frogs have protective bacteria on their skin that attacks Bd.

Scientist Dr. Lisa Belden developed a unique idea that maybe this bacteria could be used as a probiotic to treat at-risk frogs. We recently caught up with Dr. Belden to learn more about her and her research.

Why did you decide to study amphibians?

From the time I was a kid, I would be out catching frogs, salamanders, whatever I could find. I was a real “amphibian geek!”

What do you find interesting about studying amphibians, particularly the research you do looking at their skin?

Studying the metabolic dynamics of amphibian skin is very interesting. The metabolic activities of amphibian skin are more closely related to the human gastrointestinal tract than they are to mammalian skin, so not only are we learning about the normal inhabitants of amphibian skin, but we are gaining some insight into how our gut metabolism might interact with bacteria. 

What do you think about the popularity of probiotics, and how is probiotic use evolving?

I think we are going to find that probiotic therapies in people, pets, livestock and wildlife are going to become increasingly common as more links between our resident bacteria and health outcomes are established. I expect to see more combined probiotics that contain many bacterial strains/species, as opposed to the single strain products on the market today, because combinations of organisms may be more effective than just one single organism.

By the way, how do you give amphibians probiotics?

We give them baths! Since the pathogen we are most interested in infects the skin, we hope that applying probiotic solutions that contain bacteria with antifungal properties will provide protection to these vulnerable species.

Where do you see probiotic research in amphibians heading?

I hope we get to a point where we can effectively develop probiotics to mitigate fungal disease threats for free-living amphibian populations. There is still a lot of basic biology we need to define before we get there, but I hope we can be successful. It’s possible that our research in amphibians can add to this growing body of knowledge, and may even translate to other animal species.

By: Kelly Diehl, DVM, MS, DIPL. ACIVM (Small Animal Medicine) 

Categories: Animal health
October 1, 2014