Facts So Romantic

How “Useless” Science Unraveled an Amphibian Apocalypse

chytrid fungus spore
A spore of the chytrid fungus Bd. Image from CSIRO via Wikimedia Commons.

One spring day in 1984, Joyce Longcore got a phone call from Joan Brooks, a biologist at the University of Maine. Brooks had received a National Science Foundation grant to study the interactions of fungi and bacteria in peat bogs. She needed a hand, and she heard through the grapevine that Longcore knew a bit about fungi.

Longcore did. She’d studied them at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s before leaving lab life to raise a family full time. Now her oldest son was headed to college and she was looking for something to do. She’d figured on getting a job at the grocery store. Instead she took Brooks up on the offer. When their work ended after several years—it would later inspire a commercial peat-based sewage filtration system—Longcore decided to get her doctorate. The focus of her research: a division of fungi called chytridiomycota, or chytrids.

At the time, chytrids were about as obscure as a topic in science can be. Though fungi compose an entire organismal kingdom, on a level with plants or animals, mycology was and largely still is an esoteric field. Plant biologists are practically primetime television stars compared to mycologists. Only a handful of people had even heard of chytrids, and fewer still studied them. There was no inkling back then of the great significance they would later hold.

Almost overnight Longcore went from obscurity to the scientific center of an amphibian apocalypse.

Longcore happened to know about chytrids because her mentor at the University of Michigan, the great mycologist Fred Sparrow, had studied them. Much yet remained to be learned—just in the course of her doctoral studies, Longcore identified three new species and a new genus—and to someone with a voracious interest in nature, chytrids were appealing. Their evolutionary origins date back 600 million years; though predominantly aquatic, they can be found in just about every moisture-rich environment; their spores propel themselves through water with flagella closely resembling the tails of sperm. Never mind that studying chytrids was, to use Joyce’s own word, “useless,” at least by the usual standards of utility. Chytrids were interesting.

The university gave Joyce an office and a microscope. She went to work: collecting chytrids from ponds and bogs and soils, teaching herself to grow them in cultures, describing them in painstaking detail, mapping their evolutionary trees. She published regularly in mycological journals, adding crumbs to the vast storehouse of human knowledge: “Morphology and Zoospore Ultrastructure of Chytriomyces angularis sp. nov. (Chytridiales),” “Zoospore ultrastructure of Monoblepharis polymorpha,” “Chytridiomycete taxonomy since 1960.” The last established that blastocladiales, then recognized as an order within chytrids, is a phylum unto itself, which was a bit like realizing that sea slugs and monkeys don’t belong in the same category—though, mycology being what it is, only a few devotees would notice. A particularly big crumb, then.

And so it might have continued but for a strange happening at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where poison blue dart frogs started dying for no evident reason. The zoo’s pathologists, Don Nichol and Allan Pessier, were baffled. They also happened to notice something odd growing on the dead frogs. A fungus, they suspected, probably aquatic in origin, though not one they recognized. An internet search turned up Longcore as someone who might have some ideas. They sent her a sample which she promptly cultured and characterized as a new genus and species of chytrid: Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, she named it, or Bd for short.

That particular chytrid would prove to cause a disease more devastating than, as best as scientists can tell, any other in the story of life on Earth. After Longcore’s initial characterization, she and Nichol and Pessier proceeded to show that frogs exposed to Bd died. Other scientists soon linked Bd and its disease, dubbed chytridiomycosis, to massive, inexplicable die-offs of amphibians in Costa Rica, Australia, and the western United States. No disease had ever been known to cause a species to go extinct; as of this writing, chytridiomycosis has driven dozens to extinction, threatens hundreds more, and has been found in more than 500 species.

Almost overnight Longcore went from obscurity to the scientific center of an amphibian apocalypse. “Had I not been studying the ‘useless’ chytrids,” she says, “we wouldn’t have known how to deal with them.” Her research has been crucial—not only the initial characterization, but also her understanding of the systematics and classification of chytrids, which helped provide a conceptual scaffold for questions about Bd: Where did it come from? What made it so strange and so terrible? Why does it affect some species differently than others?

Those questions haven’t yet been conclusively answered, but it’s fair to say Longcore has played a major part in our current understanding and whatever progress might yet be made. (Anyone interested in the state of knowledge should read this recent review paper, co-authored by James and Longcore. The horror of the disease notwithstanding, it reads like a scientific detective story. Suffice it to say that Bd is indeed ancient, but it has evolved in unpredictable ways and spawned new hybrids, of which one is especially virulent. Humans moving amphibians around the world have dramatically exacerbated the problem by rapidly spreading the virulent strain.)

Just as, if not more, important was the expertise Longcore had developed in working with chytrids—the tricks of the trade, methods she’d taught herself for isolating and growing and handling the fungi, things made possible by her years of curiosity. Timothy James, a mycologist at the University of Michigan and longtime collaborator with Longcore, says she’s trained “countless” other scientists to work with Bd; the chytrid library she keeps in her lab is a global resource. One can imagine tendrils of influence extending outwards from her and into the scientific world like an ever-expanding network of mycelia, the root-like tendrils that sprout from fungi. “It’s difficult to imagine where we would be in terms of chytridiomycosis research if it were not for Joyce, ” says Tommy Jenkinson, another University of Michigan mycologist.

The emerging understanding of Bd applies to other diseases, too. Chytrid was only the first in a series of horrible fungal disease outbreaks—white nose syndrome in bats, snake fungal disease, sudden oak death—that have shaken global ecologies during the last decade. Lessons learned from the chytrid outbreak have been applied to them and will be applied to future outbreaks, of which there will assuredly be more: For some unknown reason, fungal diseases appear to be emerging faster than other types, and they’re becoming more destructive than they historically were. Longcore’s esoteric study of an obscure group of fungi with no obvious application proved to be profoundly important.

“What she had that almost no one else in the world had,” says James, “was the sincere passion for the organism for the organism’s sake.”

It’s a lesson worth reflecting upon. Tensions between applied and basic research, between scientific endeavors justified by obvious potential use and those pursued out of sheer curiosity for the sake of knowledge itself, are constant. In the grand scheme of things, those tensions are healthy. When budgets get squeezed, though, curiosity makes for an easy target. This is likely to become pronounced in the United States, where some officials have long railed against the perceived wastefulness and frivolity of basic research.

“You never known when some piece of knowledge is going to become useful,” says Longcore. Now 78* years old, she doesn’t have any plans to retire. Research is too much fun. In addition to her work on Bd, she continues to study other chytrids; just this year she discovered another new species, Synchytrium microbalum, the first of its genus to feed on decaying organic matter rather than parasitizing a host. “There’s lots left to discover,” she says. “Learning about our world, whether it’s applicable or not, is a valuable thing.”

Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist who writes about nature, science, and technology. His work has appeared in Wired, Aeon, Scientific American Mind, and other publications.

* Correction, January 7, 2017: The article originally stated that Longcore is 80 years old. 

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