Lee Berger elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science

Associate Professor Lee Berger, whose research upended scientists’ understanding of the role of disease in extinctions and conservation, has been elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science are among Australia’s most distinguished scientists, elected by their peers for ground-breaking research and clear impact.

Associate Professor Berger is the first female veterinarian to receive this outstanding recognition.

Associate Professor Lee Berger
Associate Professor Lee Berger.

She is a Principal Research Fellow (Wildlife Health and Conservation) in the One Health Research Group led by Associate Professor Lee Skerratt at the Melbourne Veterinary School, the University of Melbourne.

Her impact in conservation began with her PhD research at CSIRO, Geelong, and James Cook University, Townsville.

Amphibian populations in pristine areas around the world had faced rapid declines and mass extinctions since the 1970s,with no clear cause.

Scientists investigated pollution and ultraviolet radiation as possible culprits, but it was Associate Professor Berger’s PhD research that identified the cause: an introduced chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis,that had spread worldwide.

This parasitic fungus invades the skin of adult amphibians causing a disease called chytridiomycosis, which results in electrolyte loss, leading to cardiac arrest.

Using approaches from veterinary science for conservation, Associate Professor Berger showed chytridiomycosis was the major cause of the amphibian extinctions and population losses since the late 1970s. Six Australian species remain critically endangered from this disease.

A common mistfrog
The common mistfrog (Litoria rheocola) is one of many species that has declined due to chytridiomycosis. Photo: Lee Skerratt.

Associate Professor Berger says that as well as spreading feral pests, globalisation has led to the spread of wildlife diseases that can wreak havoc in new populations.

“Chytridiomycosis spread globally for about 20 years until it was diagnosed, with catastrophic results,” she says.

Her research group continues to apply interdisciplinary approaches to study this disease, with the challenging aim of finding a solution.

One Health Research Group members have developed diagnostic tests, mapped disease distribution in Australia, and tested vaccination and disinfection. Currently, their work aims to understand how some frogs can survive infection to reduce mortality rates.

In 2018, she received the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, and research by Associate Professor Berger and a global team of scientists in 2019 showed the chytrid fungus was among the most destructive invasive species ever recorded, comparable to rodents and cats in its impact on biodiversity.

She says wildlife health is an important area for research, and is not only for conservation – many infectious diseases that emerge in wildlife populations can spread to humans and livestock.

“Wildlife health in Australia is clearly an important area for study, and infectious disease of wildlife can impact conservation, livestock or human health,” she says.

“Although the field of wildlife disease has gained attention since then, it still often falls in the gap between environmental and health institutes, and needs greater resourcing.”

The Melbourne Veterinary School in the University’s Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences has been increasing capacity in this area under the leadership of its Head, wildlife veterinarian Professor Anna Meredith.

Professor Meredith says the award reflects the value and importance of veterinary research for conservation.

“This is a fantastic achievement that reflects both Lee’s discovery of the cause of catastrophic losses among the world’s amphibians, and her excellent and ongoing research to solve the enormous challenge chytridiomycosis poses to global biodiversity,” she says.

“That Lee is the first female veterinarian to be elected to the Academy makes this all the more welcome for the veterinary sciences in Australia.”

Professor John Fazakerley, a virologist specialising in zoonotic infections, which spread between humans and other animals, congratulated Associate Professor Berger on this recognition of research excellence.

“As we are all increasingly aware in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a zoonotic virus, veterinary science has a vital role in securing our health, and our world’s health,” he says.

“Lee, congratulations on this important recognition for your work!”

Banner image: Histological section of amphibian epidermis infected with Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Photo: Lee Berger.