Jenny Shelton takes us through the incredible potential of fungi and how this diverse, yet often overlooked, species may hold many of the answers to global challenges, from climate change to food insecurity.
Fungi play important roles in nature, food production, medicine, industry and bioremediation yet we have only discovered ~150,000 out of a potential 6.3 million fungal species. Just recently, a PhD student found undiscovered fungal species in seeds stored at the Millennium Seed Bank and estimates the whole collection might contain up to 1 million new species! You might be surprised to learn that fungi are more closely related to animals, and therefore humans, than they are to plants, and that the combined biomass of all fungi on Earth is 200 times greater than the entire human race.
The responses I often get when I tell someone I’m a mycologist is “Eurgh, I hate mushrooms!” or “Can you cure my athlete’s foot infection?”. It’s no surprise that this is their reaction given how little fungi feature in the U.K. school curriculum, or even in most biology and medical degrees, but it is such a shame given how magnificently diverse the Kingdom of Fungi is. (These responses also, unknowingly, capture the yin and yang of fungi: while this article is about the good that they can do it is important to acknowledge that fungal infections cause misery to millions of people around the world every year.)
Keeping in mind the challenges facing us – climate change, global food insecurity and infectious disease pandemics –I hope you will agree with me that the solutions to many of our problems could be fungal! (more…)
Jenny Shelton highlights the potential for invasive and chronic fungal lung infections with Aspergillus fumigatus in COVID-19 patients and the dangers posed by growing antifungal resistance.
Virtually unknown just a few months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected millions worldwide. The pathogen responsible, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), infects alveolar cells in the lungs. Parallels are already emerging between severe COVID-19 infection and severe influenza. Influenza, or ‘the flu’, is also caused by a virus that infects cells along the respiratory tract and is associated with similar symptoms to COVID-19 but has a lower death rate (<0.1%). Studies have found that up to 65% of individuals hospitalised with severe influenza infection are co-infected with bacteria. A recent review found 9 studies, undertaken in China and USA, that reported bacterial coinfection in a combined 62 of 806 (8%) individuals admitted to hospital with COVID-19 infection and the majority of patients (72%) received antimicrobial drugs.
Another secondary infection associated with severe influenza is invasive pulmonary aspergillosis (IPA), which develops when spores from the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus grow in the lung and pass into the bloodstream to cause sepsis. IPA is diagnosed in up to 19% of individuals hospitalised with influenza, with significantly higher mortality in the patients with IPA. (more…)
In this post, Jennifer Shelton provides an insight into her PhD project which involves over 500 citizen scientists from across the world, in the hope of better understanding a species of fungus that is linked to disease.
It started by a poolside in Gran Canaria.
I was reading my book but thinking about the sticky films we use in the lab to cover plates of DNA that a former postdoc in my group had used to collect Penicillium spores for his study on the population genetics of ‘Alexander Fleming’s lucky fungus’. I’d already decided as part of my PhD to conduct a country-wide survey to determine background levels of Aspergillus fumigatus – a species of fungus – spores in the UK. I had put aside several weeks for driving around the country to collect air and soil samples, yet thoughts of a citizen science project kept buzzing. What if I asked individuals across the UK to collect samples of their local air on a single day, say summer solstice, and post them back to me?
Citizen science projects are increasing in popularity and rely on members of the public to voluntarily collect samples, process data or record observations as part of a research project. Some well-known examples include SETI@Home, which uses internet-connected computers to analyse telescope data in the search for extra-terrestrial life; Foldit, an online video game about protein folding and Swab & Send, a widespread swabbing exercise to identify novel antibiotics in the environment. (more…)
Jennifer Shelton from the School of Public Health reflects on a recent field trip to Taiwan which involved studying amphibians.
Close your eyes and imagine the high-pitched shrieking of cicadas unified in a crescendo of noise from the treeline. Fireflies blinking their fluorescence through the undergrowth. Bats swooping silently overhead, rustling your hair with their wing beats. Trekking across steep hillsides of wasabi plants during a rainstorm. Not the average working week of a researcher in the School of Public Health, but just some of the sights and sounds I was fortunate to experience when I visited Taiwan in May as a National Geographic Young Explorer. (more…)