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An Oriental fire-bellied toad (Bombina orientalis) imported into Europe from South Korea. Photo: Frank Pasmans/Ghent University

Scientists may have finally traced the origin of a deadly fungus that is decimating the global amphibian population. In a study published in Science Thursday, researchers report the fungus originated in East Asia, possibly Korea.

Why it matters: The researchers say this provides strong evidence there should be a ban on trade in amphibians from East Asia before irrevocable damage is done to global amphibian biodiversity.

"It would break down the [older] idea the [fungus] Bd is endemic and climate change triggered it."
— James P. Collins, evolutionary ecologist, Arizona State University

Background: The chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd) was identified in the 1990s as causing the global decline in amphibians that started twenty years earlier, but the timing of the expansion and the geographic origin of the pathogen was unknown. Bd is highly infectious between animals, attacking their skin and causing catastrophic mortality.

  • Out of around 7,800 species, Bd has already wiped out more than 200 amphibian species, Collins said. It has also precipitated sharp declines in others, from Australia to the Iberian Peninsula.

Different theories of its origin:

  • One, as detailed in this 2006 study, is that the fungus is endemic and events like large-scale climate change can trigger its emergence.
  • Others — as seen in the study out today, one from earlier this week on American bullfrogs, and in earlier research — say the fungus originated somewhere else, was transported, and eventually grew to become a global pandemic.
"Something was moving these strains around," Collins says, describing the study. "They're not just popping out because of climate change."

What this study did: Over a 10-year period, the international team of researchers gathered pathogen samples around the world and sequenced the genomes. They identified 4 main lineages of the fungus, 3 of which are distributed globally and one, which demonstrates the most genetic diversity, found only in Korea.

What they found: Using the genetic data, the team estimated the killer strain of Bd currently plaguing amphibians diverged from its most recent common ancestor not thousands of years ago as previously thought, but 50–120 years ago. This coincides with a huge expansion in global trade and human population size, the scientists say.

Study limitations: Study author Simon O'Hanlon, from the Imperial College of London, says while the genetics from the fungus on Korean amphibians "bear all the hallmarks" of being the source region, there has not yet been enough research into isolates in other parts of East Asia or the Indian sub-continent to conclusively declare Korea as ground zero of the epidemic.

  • Collins also points out more evidence is needed to show a direct relationship between global trade and the epidemic, which for now is an "interesting correlation."

What's next: O'Hanlon said steps need to be taken to regulate trade more carefully, especially in exotic pets. "Any sensible steps that can be taken to put regulations in place to prevent the next global panzootic from some currently unknown pathogen would be a good thing," he said, using the term for an outbreak of infectious disease that affects animals.

  • Of note, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded last year that Bd is already so prevalent in the country that trade restrictions would not be effective.

Go deeper

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech companies are sharing more information with law enforcement in a frantic effort to prevent violence around the inauguration, after the government was caught flat-footed by the Capitol siege.

Between the lines: Tech knows it will be held accountable for any further violence that turns out to have been planned online if it doesn't act to stop it.

Dave Lawler, author of World
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Uganda's election: Museveni declared winner, Wine claims fraud

Wine rejected the official results of the election. Photo: Sumy Sadruni/AFP via Getty

Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of a sixth presidential term on Saturday, with official results giving him 59% to 35% for Bobi Wine, the singer-turned-opposition leader.

Why it matters: This announcement was predictable, as the election was neither free nor fair and Museveni had no intention of surrendering power after 35 years. But Wine — who posed a strong challenged to Museveni, particularly in urban areas, and was beaten and arrested during the campaign — has said he will present evidence of fraud. The big question is whether he will mobilize mass resistance in the streets.

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Episode 1: A premeditated lie lit the fire

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 1: Trump’s refusal to believe the election results was premeditated. He had heard about the “red mirage” — the likelihood that early vote counts would tip more Republican than the final tallies — and he decided to exploit it.

"Jared, you call the Murdochs! Jason, you call Sammon and Hemmer!”