A frog researcher whose ground-breaking discoveries at James Cook University solved the mystery of a disease killing frogs around the world has won one of Australia’s most prestigious science prizes.
JCU adjunct Dr Lee Berger, based within the One Health Research Group (a multi-institutional collaborative research group), has been awarded one of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science: the $50,000 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.
Through her PhD research, Lee Berger discovered chytridiomycosis - an infectious disease caused by the chytrid fungus - that was the cause of mysterious amphibian declines in pristine areas of Queensland and beyond.
The chytrid fungus is now known to be the cause of a global mass extinction of frogs. Hundreds of species have declined, and at least six species have disappeared entirely in Australia.
Her original paper has been cited more than 1,900 times and has sparked hundreds of papers and research careers devoted to the problem.
However, finding a solution to save frogs from further extinctions is an ongoing challenge. Subsequent research by Dr Berger and the One Health Research Group (led by her husband Dr Lee Skerratt) has resulted in further discoveries about the development of the disease, its distribution, disease ecology, diagnosis, conservation management, and immunity, resulting in over 100 publications.
Dr Berger said she is honoured to receive the award and keen for the disease to get the attention it deserves.
“It was really exciting to make this discovery from Australia and to give the rest of the world the answer to the big mystery of why the frogs were disappearing.
“Our work has led to a paradigm shift in attitudes to the impact of emerging disease on biodiversity.
“This fungus is one of the worst invasive diseases in history. It's caused over two hundred species of frogs around the world to decline or to become extinct. I think it's a sign that we have to take the spread of disease a lot more seriously,” Dr Berger said.
The annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science honour Australia’s best scientists, innovators, and science teachers and recognise the extraordinary contribution they make to our nation.