Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Fungal Infections a Threat to All Life Forms

The journal Nature is one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world - the one many scientists working in many different fields of science aim to publish in to mark the pinnacle of their achievements. Scientific work that is published in its pages has to be the very best quality and written about the most important fields of research of the day (history of Nature articles), so when it sounds an alarm we should all listen.

Earlier in April the cover of Nature was given over, as usual, to the most important or at least most 'eye-catching' body of work in that edition. The title given to that edition was 'Fear of Fungi'.

Should we be frightened of fungi? The article highlighted was an extensive search for evidence that the numbers of infection outbreaks throughout the world involving fungi are on the increase.
We have certainly got evidence of important increases in the number of humans infected by fungi, related to increase in the use on immunosupressing therapy for a variety of illnesses but this article goes much further.

Quite large increases in reported fungal disease outbreaks were detected for both plants and animals (see below)

Examination of infectious disease trends (ProMED and HealthMap) have revealed in increase in number of fungal disease outbreaks expressed as a proportion of the total number of reported disease outbreaks from 1 to 7% in the period from 1995 to 2012. Factors causing this rise include the globalisation of trade and transportproviding a route for the introduction of new, pathogenic species into areas of the world that are relatively unprotected. Also detected is the accelerated evolution of increased virulence of pathogenic fungi caused by mixing and sexual recombination of established species with incomers.

Environmental change also has an important influence, both on the ability of the host species to resist the fungal attack and on the development of new pathogenic varients of fungi. Increased CO2 has been shown to increase rice blight for example, though other changes are known to reduce infection too. Deforestation, warmer seawater, warmer weather, widespread use of antifungal azoles in agriculture are all suspected of increasing fungal diseases in the plant, animal and human worlds.

There is much debate on how many other factors are involved in these increases but the end result is the same - aggressive fungal infection. Besides the direct effect on health, widespread damage to crops threatens our ability to feed ourselves and reduction in biodiversity presents us with problems for future generations looking for new 'genetic solutions' to multiple problems.

Increased perception of the importance of fungal disease is sorely needed to promote the means to prevent, or at least slow down, the spread of infections by multiple fungi on multiple host types. There are some attempts to achieve this internationally for specific infections e.g. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization(FAO) have programs to prevent trade associatedspread of pathogens.

Leading International Fungal Education  A new initiative by the Fungal Research Trust named 'Leading International Fungal Education' (LIFE) is currently running the Project LIFE competition which is the first step aimed at promoting awareness of fungal infection in the UK but aims to stimulate similar projects worldwide.

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