South West experts unite to fight deadly fungus

Published: 28 February 2017

South West experts unite to fight deadly fungus

Scientists at the region’s leading zoological charity have joined forces with researchers at the University of Exeter to develop a ground-breaking test for a disease that’s sweeping through the natural world.

WWCT conservationists inspired the development of the rapid field test to detect the presence of the Chytrid fungus, which is killing amphibians in the wild. The amphibian fungal disease – correctly, Chytridiomycosis – is thought to be a major factor in the decline of almost half of threatened amphibians around the globe. A research article describing the new lateral flow device for diagnosing Chytrid in amphibians developed at the University of Exeter has been published by the journal Microbial Biotechnology, with the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Dr Andrew Bowkett and former Paignton Zoo amphibian expert Mike Bungard as co-authors.

The idea for the test came out of a discussion between Dr Andrew Bowkett and his PhD supervisor, Dr Jamie Stevens. Teaming up with Dr Chris Thornton, an immunologist working in human medicine, gave them the expertise and technology to develop the rapid test. Funding from the Leverhulme Trust allowed them to recruit Dr Michael Dillon to carry out the laboratory work.

Andrew: “It’s a quick and easy pregnancy-style test that will reduce the diagnosis time of Chytrid from days to minutes. This could transform amphibian quarantine and translocation practices and vastly reduce the fungus’ spread.” The test detects the presence of the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis in the field.

The disease has thrived due to the global amphibian trade. Although the fungus can already be detected, current tests involve sending samples to one of a small number of specialist laboratories; the time taken to obtain results can allow the source fungus to spread before being positively identified. The team, led by Dr Thornton, also worked with chytrid experts at Imperial College and ZSL.

Paignton Zoo Curator of Lower Vertebrates & Invertebrates Luke Harding will be advising on promoting the test to zoos and the wider amphibian conservation community. The next stage is to conduct trials to test the device in the field.

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