Fungal Pathogens May Be Adapting Dangerously to Global Warming

There is now evidence to back up the science fiction of a mutant fungus spreading most of mankind whether you've played the video game The Last of Us or watched any of the recent TV adaptations.

Researchers have shown how pathogenic fungus might develop in a warmer environment to better resist the heat within our bodies, even if we're not yet on the verge of a social disaster like the one shown in The Last of Us.

The conclusion is that these pathogens may become a larger concern in terms of disease as they adapt to a world that is continually becoming hotter given that it is that heat that does the majority of the job of safeguarding us from these threats.

According to molecular geneticist and microbiologist Asiya Gusa from the Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina, "These are not infectious illnesses in the communicable sense; we don't spread fungus to one other."

We constantly breathe in fungus spores, but our immune systems are prepared to combat them.

A harmful fungus known as Cryptococcus deneoformans was carefully examined by the scientists, which also raised its temperature from 30 °C (86 °F) to 37 °C (98.6 °F) in a lab setting. The genetic makeup of the fungus was profoundly altered by these thermal stressors.

At the greater temperature, there was really five times as much movement among the "jumping genes," those transposable DNA fragments that may shift positions in the genome. Although these transposable elements don't directly produce proteins, they can influence how other genes function.

T1, Tcn12, and Cnl1 were the three jumping genes that were specifically monitored. The changes they caused to the genome and within genes gave rise to the possibility that they were changing the way genes were coded and maybe introducing drug resistance. What the long-term effects of this increased activity could be are yet not quite apparent.

Additional studies were conducted on mice, where the transposable elements' activity was much more evident. According to the researchers, being inside an animal and experiencing its immune system and other physiological processes may be causing the movement to increase.

Within just 10 days of the mouse infection, "we detected evidence of all 3 transposable elements mobilizing in the fungal genome," claims Gusa.

"These moveable components might let an organism adapt to its surroundings and to an infection. Due to the fact that heat stress accelerates the occurrence of mutations, this may develop much more quickly."

Building an underground bunker is not yet necessary because this study is still in its early phases and doesn't involve actual people. Additionally, since fungal spores are often bigger than viral spores, protection measures like face masks will work better against them.

The study did demonstrate that C. deneoformans has quicker genetic alterations as a result of higher heat. The lesson here is that as global temperatures rise, harmful fungus may be changing more swiftly than previously imagined.

The next step is to research microorganisms from individuals who have experienced a recurrence of a fungal illness. Even while infections like these already claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of people each year, only the very immunocompromised are now at risk. Gusa recognises the similar premise in The Last of Us and speculates that things could start to change one day.

Gusa exclaims, "That's exactly the kind of stuff I'm talking about, except the zombie bit." As more people have compromised immune systems or underlying medical disorders, the prevalence of fungal illnesses is rising.

The research has been published in PNAS.