Fungus Amongus: budding scientist helps solve medical mystery

Fungus Amongus: budding scientist helps solve medical mystery 

Hidden Spheres: A 7th grade science fair project has helped uncover the source of fungal infections that target patients with HIV/AIDS. One third of AIDS related deaths have been linked to infections by Cryptococcus. This fungus causes life-threatening infections in immune-compromised patients, and less commonly in healthy people, pets and animals, accounting for >1 million infections and >620,000 deaths worldwide. Named “hidden sphere” because of its tiny spores, Cryptococcus is a single-celled yeast that can propagate by budding, or it can mate in pairs to form spores that are released into the air. Fortunately, it only multiplies by budding in human hosts, and therefore cannot spread from person to person. So how do we acquire it, and what is its natural reservoir? 

Love is in the Air? : Cryptococcus gattii grows on the bark and leaves of the Australian Eucalyptus tree. Scientists speculate that the tropical fungus was inadvertently imported into the northwestern US along with the trees, and has spread to ten other tree species in the Vancouver/Oregon area including Coastal Douglas Fir and Coastal Western Hemlock. The fungus depends on chemical stimulants (myo-inositol and indole acetic acid) from plants for sexual reproduction, forming spores that are dispersed in the wind to be inhaled by unsuspecting people. Only mating allows fungal DNA to recombine, forming new, virulent strains that can survive in unfriendly environments such as the warm bodies of humans. After fatal outbreaks were reported in the Pacific Northwest area, patients with  AIDS and other immune illnesses have been advised to stay away from forests. Historically, C. gattii has been infecting people in California for years, although the fungus has not been found on eucalyptus trees and other usual suspects there. Tracking down the environmental hideout would help warn susceptible people of the danger in the hidden spheres. 

Nailing the Niche : Schoolgirl Elan Filler’s father, a scientist, helped connect her with microbiologist Joseph Heitman of Duke University. For her science fair project, Elan collected fungal samples from local trees, cultured them on petri plates, and sent them to postdoc Deborah Springer who analyzed the DNA and compared it to samples found in patients in the area. They found a perfect genetic match with samples harvested from three species- Canary Island pine, New Zealand pohutukawa and American sweet gum, to patient samples collected in the past decade. With her science sleuthing recently reported in a publication in PLOS Pathogens, here’s hoping that young Elan is inspired to find her niche in research and science!  

Science Trivia Challenge! What does V8 vegetable juice (Campbell Soups) have to do with Cryptococcus

#OpenAccess  paper with Elan Filler as co-author:

NPR News Story:

C. gatti infections:

H/T KQED SCIENCE for the news find! 

#ScienceSunday     #STEMWomen  

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32 Responses to Fungus Amongus: budding scientist helps solve medical mystery

  1. Sunil Bajpai says:

    Thanks for sharing, Rajini Rao. But I do hope that an early success doesn’t trap the young lady into becoming a scientist, if she doesn’t truly want to be one. We don’t know of her other talents and interests. Just saying.

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Good point, Sunil Bajpai . It’s not uncommon for children of scientists to have early success in research and then find a different path. 

  3. This is a bit off topic… Do you by chance know Dr. Piyush Swami? He is a science educator from Bangalore, recently retired from University of Cincinnati. He was my dissertation chair. You recently posted a comment that was an almost verbatim quote of his re: science, learning and decision making.

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    Moreen Carvan no, how interesting, I don’t know of him! Although I’m from Bangalore, I only did my undergraduate studies there and left in the early 80’s (a long time ago!) to continue training in the US. Do you recall the quote? 

  5. Piyush always says that it is the pesky little details that distinguished science from conjecture, and did a great deal of research on the sources of persistent misconception, which are THE primary object of most science learning design. The post on memes interested me because my own past research interest…and then I read your post with that statement. So I looked you up on g+ and saw that you went to school in Bangalore.

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    Gnotic Pasta did you drink your veggies today? 😀

    One of the components of V8 juice is inositol and that has been independently shown to stimulate mating.

    Our cerebrospinal fluid is also rich in myo-inositol and there’s a theory that is why Cryptococcus infection extends to the brain. Apparently, the fungus likes to use inositol as a carbon source (similar to glucose). 

  7. Rajini Rao says:

    Moreen Carvan I’ll have to look up his work, thanks! 

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    Leszek Dziędziewicki that was the paper I found too! Thanks for providing the link. I dug further, and found this paper from 1976 but they don’t offer an explanation of how they came to use V8 🙂

  9. Marta Rauch says:

    Excellent. Thank you Rajini Rao

  10. Gary Ray R says:

    Excellent post that highlights women in STEM.  I invite you to please share this to Science on G+.   

    Thanks Rajini Rao 

  11. Bill Collins says:

    Now that’s good research. I hope she goes on to a lot more greater things.

  12. David Shealy says:

    Research activities and experiences are important activities…

  13. Tau-Mu Yi says:

    It is a great result!

  14. Rajini Rao says:

    Mark Bruce it’s cool that a simple sample collection project, accessible to a high school student, could be paired with sophisticated DNA analysis done in Duke lab..wouldn’t it be great if we had more pairings like this! 

  15. Nice work and I am impressed by the result…!

  16. Interesting; easy to read and understand.

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    Glad that you enjoyed this, Asoka Dissanayake ; thanks for the feedback. 

  18. Fred Andayi says:

    that is awesome, i hope she stays in science!

  19. Areina Mason says:

    I mean you smarter than any body in your school

  20. she is living my dream, LOL! just very smart 🙂

  21. Iam not speak english

    lam in Iraqi

  22. nice to meet you


  23. Rana Usman says:

    Hello darling am single but friendship you

  24. Focus on the presented science, Rana. It’s good for the soul…

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