UMass Amherst Biologist Receives National Genomics Award to Study Fungi Causing Global Decline in Frogs and Salamanders

Lillian Fritz-Laylin
Lillian Fritz-Laylin

AMHERST, Mass. – The National Science Foundation announced today that University of Massachusetts Amherst biologist Lillian Fritz-Laylin has been named one of 11 scientists in the nation who will share a total $10 million for developing and disseminating genomic tools in diverse species, allowing biologists to address mechanistic questions about how genes affect an organism’s physical and functional characteristics.

A cell biologist who is expert in such techniques as RNA-interference (RNAi) and gene-editing CRISPRcas9 technology, Fritz-Laylin will receive $778,390 through NSF’s Enabling Discovery through Genomic Tools (EDGE) program, administered by its Division of Integrative Organismal Systems in the Directorate for Biological Sciences. 

She says, “I am excited that the NSF recognizes the need for molecular tools to study chytrid fungi, in terms of both ecology and basic biology, and my lab and I are ready to get to work.”

Fritz-Laylin’s three-year project is titled “Genetic transformation of chytrid fungi.” As she explains, chytrids are a diverse group of over 1,000 species of fungi, including organisms that play key roles in the biology of freshwater, marine and soil ecosystems. At present, many chytrid species are causing global declines in amphibian population, including Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) that is devastating frog populations, and Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) that is thought to be poised to do the same to North American salamanders, she adds.  

“Despite the importance of chytrid fungi in global ecosystems, basic modern biological tools have not yet been developed for any species of chytrid fungus. This lack of molecular genetic methods makes it impossible to directly test hypotheses about how and why chytrids cause disease,” Fritz-Laylin points out.

Her project will develop and test the first molecular genetic tools for chytrids and will foster the use of these tools by different scientific communities. Fritz-Laylin plans to disseminate the tools widely by rapid, open data and protocol sharing, and by directly training scientists from many diverse laboratories in how to use modern molecular methods to study chytrid fungi. 

NSF says the EDGE program was designed to provide support for overcoming impediments to understanding the functional basis of traits at the heart of organismal biology. “Specifically, EDGE aims to develop functional genomic tools, approaches, and associated infrastructure to directly test gene function in organisms where such tools are not presently available.”

Joanne Tornow, NSF’s acting assistant director for the directorate of biological sciences, says, “The EDGE awards are very exciting because they are transformative. These researchers are creating innovative tools that will advance efforts to identify links between genes and complex organismal-level characteristics in a wide range of species.”

Ted Morgan, NSF EDGE program director, says, “This research represents a grand challenge in biology and is part of a bigger effort within our field to better predict how organismal traits arise from genetic variation in natural environments. Building this fundamental understanding of how genetic changes are connected with organismal traits has a range of significant societal benefits that include predicting organismal responses to changing environment, the development of more effective conservation efforts, the development of new medical approaches, new therapeutics, and better crop yields.”

In addition to Fritz-Laylin, 10 other EDGE awards went to scientists developing genomics tools for studying stem cells and regeneration, genome editing and transgenic tools in lizards, and functional genomics in flowers and wasps, for example.