NSF funds $12.5 million for Pitt-hosted institute to study resilience to infectious disease

NSF funds $12.5 million for Pitt-hosted institute to study resilience to infectious disease

Frogs provide look into living systems vs. SARS, other pathogens in RIBBBiTR project 

Can frogs’ ability to survive certain infections help enhance understanding of how to help humans do the same?  A new research partnership funded by the National Science Foundation will examine resilience demonstrated by amphibians and other groups of species to emergence and spread of new infectious diseases, along with other human-caused changes to the global ecosystem.  The team will investigate what has allowed amphibians to bounce back after disease outbreaks, using this group of species as a model for understanding how resilience comes about in other living systems.

These questions will be the focus of RIBBiTR, the Resilience Institute Bridging Biological Training and Research, a new center at the University of Pittsburgh funded by a five-year, $12.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and involving researchers at the University of Alabama; University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Santa Barbara; University of Massachusetts, Boston; University of Mississippi; University of Nevada, Reno; Temple University; Texas Tech University; University of Tennessee; and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Pitt’s Corinne Richards-Zawacki, professor in ecology and evolutionary biology in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, will lead the work as Principal Investigator.  The collaborating scientists have been conducting a range of research papers for years, most recently one published in a Royal Society journal in June titled “Divergent regional evolutionary histories of a devastating global amphibian pathogen.”

“Because we have lots of data over time from around the world on amphibians who are doing better now than they were after the initial disease outbreaks, they are perfect for studying resilience,” Richards-Zawacki said. “We can ask many questions: What mechanisms make them able to live with their pathogens? Are the pathogens changing? What is the impact of different environments? If we understand how the relationship has changed between the species and the threat, we can consider how resilience can be applied to other biological systems.”

The institute is part of the NSF’s strategy to create large research teams across disciplines and regions to investigate “rules of life” principles — fundamental life processes ranging from biomes to the Earth. This initiative aims to focus on resilience as one such “rule”, applying what they learn about the amphibians’ recovery from a newly emerged fungal to understand how other living systems can bounce back from global change stressors. The study subjects will be amphibians from sites in Brazil, Panama, the Sierra Nevada of California, and Pitt’s Pymatuning Lab of Ecology in northwest Pennsylvania.

“In addition to research that spans many disciplines in biology, the team is charged with developing curriculum and programs that will train the next generation of biologists to be ‘integrative’ in their approach to their science as well.  At Pitt, this will include course-based undergraduate research experiences investigating the components of frog slime that help frogs fight back against their pathogens.”

Why should we care about frogs and the like? “Amphibians’ skins and secretions can have medicinal properties,” Richards-Zawacki added. “They are also canaries in the coal mine for environmental impacts, partly because they have thin skin and are exposed to contaminants both in water and on land, so they share threats with other organisms.”

The other lead investigators participating in RIBBiTR include: Gui Becker, Alabama; Erica Bree Rosenblum, UC Berkeley; Cherie Briggs, Roland Knapp and Thomas Smith, UCSB; Doug Woodhams, UMass Boston; Michel Ohmer, Mississippi; Jamie Voyles, Nevada-Reno; Emily Le Sage, Temple (and until recently Vanderbilt); Mark Wilber, Tennessee; Lisa Limeri, Texas Tech; Louise Rollins-Smith, Vanderbilt.

Three other members of the Pitt faculty play roles in the institute: Justin Kitzes, assistant professor in quantitative ecology and conservation, whose lab will lead bioacoustics sampling at all four field sites; Nancy Kaufmann, senior lecturer in biological sciences, who will assist with designing undergraduate research courses that feed back to the institute’s research; and Becky Gonda, visiting lecturer and director of outreach in biological sciences, who will help to develop similar research experiences for high-school students.

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