Fungi are adapting to body heat and becoming drug-resistant; it's a 'doomsday scenario' | Health


You breathe in fungal spores every time you walk outside, but of the millions of fungal pathogens on Earth, only 20 or fewer species cause infections in humans. (Read this also | Mushrooms for improvement: brilliant fungi are changing our world,

The Candida auris fungus has been found to be resistant to several antifungal drugs. (DW/Katrina Kohn/IMAGO)

This is because our immune system is very efficient at protecting us from fungal infections. Also, our body is so hot that most fungal species are unable to survive.

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But a new study finds that some fungal microbes are becoming increasingly capable of infecting humans – and it may be linked to climate change.

“It is believed that the threat and importance of new fungal pathogens have been seriously underestimated,” the study authors wrote in a paper published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

There are also indications that rising temperatures are causing fungi to change and become resistant to antifungal drugs.

Two cases of rare fungal infection reported in China

The researchers first looked at records of fungal infections in 98 hospitals in China between 2009 and 2019. They found two patients who were infected with a group of fungi that, as far as they knew, had never previously caused disease in humans.

They isolated the fungal pathogens in the laboratory and found that they were also able to infect mice with weakened immune systems, similar to what can happen in humans with weakened immune systems.

Mammals are generally protected from fungal organisms because our body temperature is 37°C, which is too high for most fungal species to survive.

But according to records, the researchers found that the fungal species R. fluvialis and R. nylandii tolerate high body temperatures well.

Furthermore, 37°C temperature increased the rate of mutation in fungal colonies compared to the cooler temperature of 25°C.

As a result, the fungi became resistant to antifungal drugs.

“This paper shows that this same mechanism may also exist in other organisms that do not cause human disease, meaning they can adapt to cause human disease,” said Jatin Vyas, a physician-scientist and expert on fungal pathogens at Harvard Medical School in the US.

“You can see a doomsday scenario. It's not going to happen like that [the game/TV series] The Last of Us, but this means that new fungal organisms can cause serious infectious diseases. And we have very few medicines to help,” said Vyas, who was not involved in the study.

Global warming caused fungal growth

The study authors said their research showed that global warming is causing fungal pathogens to develop drug-resistance and virulence — the ability to cause disease.

“This indirect conclusion follows from the observation that heat tolerance is a known virus,” said Toni Gabaldon, an evolutionary biologist at the Institute of Biomedicine Research in Barcelona, ​​Spain.

Other studies have shown that some fungal species can grow at higher temperatures than was thought several decades ago. However, “we do not have direct evidence that these two observations are connected and further research is needed,” Gabaldon said.

Meanwhile, Vyas did not agree that climate change was the reason for the fungus growth at higher body temperatures in this study.

“The sudden change from 25 to 37 degrees Celsius is not what I would call a result of global warming. The Amazon basin has seen a 1 degree Celsius rise in the last decade, which has had profound impacts on the ecology,” Vyas said.

Scientists have recently found that the emergence of certain fungal pathogens, including Candida auris, has been driven by increased soil temperatures around the world. This is probably due to global warming, Vyas said.

What is the risk of the spread of drug-resistant fungal pathogens?

Vyas said there is a risk of drug-resistant fungal pathogens spreading globally, as they have been detected in Spain, Portugal and Canada.

“There is a risk of drug-resistant species spreading around the world,” Vyas said. “What we are seeing here is really starting to panic. When we think about the billions of other organisms that live on Earth, most of them are completely resistant to antifungal drugs.”

Fungal infections cause approximately 2.5 million deaths per year.

“Antifungal resistance is a very significant problem and is likely to grow more rapidly than for antibacterial compounds [Ed.: antibiotics] “We only have three main families of antifungal drugs,” Gabaldon said.

The difficulty is that fungi are eukaryotic organisms, like mammals. This means that any new drugs developed could potentially have side effects in humans that would need to be mitigated. And it could be a long process before the drugs can be used in humans.

But Vyas said there is at least one positive to the bad news.

“Studies like this make us better prepared for pathogenic organisms,” he said. “We are beginning to understand how fungi are adapting to these rare cases.” [in China, as those in the study]So that we can find ways to protect ourselves in the future.”

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