NSF funds $12.5 million biology integration institute at Pitt to study animal resilience to disease

As seen in the Pitt Research September 2021 Newsletter

Research on human-created stresses on ecosystems usually focuses on the decline of living systems. University of Pittsburgh biologist Corinne Richards-Zawacki instead investigates why living systems recover  – a phenomenon known as resilience. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has named Richards- Zawacki principal investigator of a new Biology Integration Institute (BII) to explore resilience in living systems, funded by a five year, $12.5 million grant to be shared between the University of Pittsburgh and collaborators at UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Berkeley, University of Nevada Reno, University of Alabama, University of Mississippi, UT-Knoxville, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Vanderbilt. The Institute will be hosted at Pitt.

Professor Richards-Zawacki studies amphibian populations that have been decimated for decades by an infectious disease called chytridiomycosis, caused by a fungal pathogen. In recent years, those amphibian populations have begun to recover despite the persistence of the pathogen. The new NSF initiative seeks to understand the principles behind their recovery and the ways those principles can apply to other living systems. The amphibians that are the initial focus of the initiative are frogs from sites in California, Pennsylvania, Panama, and Brazil.

The Biology Integration Institute is part of an NSF push to create large teams of researchers across disciplines and regions to investigate “rules of life” principles – fundamental biological processes considered at scales ranging from molecules, cells, and biomes to the entire Earth. The BII program aims to bring together integrated teams of researchers from multiple disciplines in biology, and disciplines beyond biology.

Developing training programs for the next generation of scientists is an important aspect of the BII, making Pitt an obvious choice for a home university. Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences boasts innovative student research experiences in biology, such as the successful SEAPHAGES program, in which undergraduates discover new viruses in the environment.  The department is also home to the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology in northwestern Pennsylvania, directed by Richards-Zawacki.  Her team plans to build on Pitt’s student research experience in designing programs and courses that engage high school and undergraduate students in authentic research experiences on resilience.

In a nod to the role of frogs, the institute has been named Resilience Institute Bridging Biological Training and Research – or RIBBiTR. The Institute will consider the value inherent in saving amphibians but also the value of understanding how their recovery may contribute to a larger understanding of responses to new infectious diseases in other organisms, including humans. Similar to SARS and COVID-19, chytridiomycosis was spread by human interaction by moving amphibians into new environments, which introduced pathogens to species with no resistance to them.

Richards-Zawacki is passionate about frogs both as fascinating animals and as model organisms.

“Amphibians are an important part of the food chain as pest control and food for higher organisms. Their skins and secretions can have medicinal properties. They are 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,” Richards-Zawacki said.

“Amphibians are perfect for studying resilience because we have lots of data over time from around the world on amphibians who are doing better. With that data, we can ask many questions: what mechanisms make them able to live with the pathogen? Are the pathogens changing? What is the impact of different environments? If we understand how the relationship has changed between the species and pathogen, we can consider how resilience can be applied to other organisms,” she said.