In The Field

ASM: Fungi mushroom

Bacteria are so yesterday. Today I’m all over fungi. I just spent two hours taking a crash course in a room full of fungus-lovers.

I would guess that most people’s interactions with skin fungi are limited to a bout of athlete’s foot. Be grateful. After a slide show of the gruesome, scaling, pustulating, havoc that pathogenic fungi can wreak in the dead cells that crown our skin, I will never complain about itchy toes again.

Actually, Trichophyton rubrum, the worldwide agent of athlete’s foot (in countries that favour sweaty shoes and socks) tops the list of skin-loving pathogenic fungi. Tricophyton tonsurans (ringworm of the scalp) comes in at number two.

But in the last decade or so the number of really invasive, dangerous infections from fungi is rising, mainly because of the growing number of patients whose fungi-fighting immune systems are dampened down by drugs in order to accept an organ or tissue transplant.

Michael Rinaldi, of the University of Texas Medical Center, showed one case in which a kidney transplant patient turned up with glaring red patches all over his body. It turned out that Trichophyton rubrum – the athlete’s foot fungus – had eaten its way into his skin and internal organs. “They do whatever the hell they want in immunocompromised people,” Rinaldi said. “It’s the way it’s gonna be – we’re creating living Petri dishes.”

I came away with mild nausea but also the feeling that fungi research is a bit of a backwater. These people figure out which fungi is which by growing a mouldy culture and examining what shape it is under the microscope. They debate whether to use genetic sequencing – imagine! – to better identify their fungi.

In the other room, people are talking about sequencing genes of hundreds or thousands of bacteria at a time. Maybe this thinking hasn’t fully invaded the fungi world yet.


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