Warmer Climate May Drive Fungi to be More Dangerous to Our Health
Published:21 Feb.2023    Source:Duke University
Pathogenic fungi (Candida, Aspergillus, Cryptococcus and others) are notorious killers of immune-compromised people. But for the most part, healthy people have not had to worry about them, and the vast majority of the planet's potentially pathogenic fungi don't do well in the heat of our bodies.
But all that may be about to change.
A new study out of Duke University School of Medicine finds that raised temperatures cause a pathogenic fungus known as Cryptococcus deneoformans to turn its adaptative responses into overdrive. This increases its number of genetic changes, some of which might presumably lead to higher heat resistance, and others perhaps toward greater disease-causing potential.
Specifically, higher heat makes more of the fungus' transposable elements, or jumping genes, get up and move around within the fungal DNA, leading to changes in the way its genes are used and regulated. The findings appeared Jan. 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"These mobile elements are likely to contribute to adaptation in the environment and during an infection," said postdoctoral researcher Asiya Gusa Ph.D. of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology in the Duke School of Medicine. "This could happen even faster because heat stress speeds up the number of mutations occurring."
This may ring a bell with viewers of the new HBO series "The Last of Us," where a dystopian hellscape is precipitated by a heat-adapted fungus that takes over humans and turns them into zombies. "That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about -- minus the zombie part!" said Gusa who just watched the first episode and who will join the Duke faculty as an assistant professor later this year.
"These are not infectious diseases in the communicable sense; we don't transmit fungi to each other," Gusa said. "But the spores are in the air. We breathe in spores of fungi all the time and our immune systems are equipped to fight them."
Fungal spores are generally larger than viruses, so your existing stock of face masks against Covid would probably be sufficient to stop them. That, and your body heat, for now.
"Fungal diseases are on the rise, largely because of an increase in the number of people who have weakened immune systems or underlying health conditions," Gusa said. But at the same time, pathogenic fungi may be adapting to warmer temperatures as well.
Working in the lab of Professor Sue Jinks-Robertson, Gusa led research that focused on three transposable elements that were particularly active under heat stress in C. deneoformans. But there are easily another 25 or more transposable elements in that species that could mobilize, she said.