Radiolab is a public podcast produced out of New York City and recently they produced a podcast about fungus (our favorite flora). To clarify, while all mushrooms are fungi, not all fungi are mushrooms; in this blog post, we’ll be talking about fungi as a whole instead of mushrooms specifically.
So, we start the podcast in a teaching hospital in Karachi, Pakistan; the year is 2014. They find an identical bug in the blood of three different patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Now it isn’t uncommon for multiple people to be sick with the same thing, like the flu season, but it is highly unlikely that they would have identical viruses that they contracted while inside the hospital. The doctor, Javoeria Farooqi, starts peeking around and they find two more cases in the same hospital, but a completely different department. By the end of six months, they had nineteen cases, and eight of the people who had contracted it had died.
Dr. Farooqi decided to take a closer look at the bug and realized that it was a fungus, but she had never seen it before in over forty years of medicine. So she took a sample and sent it into the Center for Disease Control, who identified it as the fungus Candida Auris, but even the CDC had never seen a strain like this. The CDC gets involved and they found four different outbreaks in South Africa, India, South Korea, and London, all in hospital ICUs.
They start thinking of ideas of how this fungus could have gotten into patient bloodstreams. The most popular thought was that maybe fungi are adapting to fungicide that farmers use, but that didn’t make entire sense; so they start looking for deeper, ecological reasons.
Then we switch over to dinosaurs (I promise this will make sense, keep reading!). I’m sure many of you know that the dinosaurs were killed off by meteors and the reason we, mammals, survived was that there was a little shrew-like creature that had burrowed down and survived the meteor impact. Now enters, Dr. Arturo Casadevall from Johns Hopkins.
So archaeologists know that the Earth before “the cataclysm” was warmer and covered with dense vegetation. When the cataclysm hit, it led to a period where the sun disappeared because of ash and debris and temperatures dropped with no sun. This change in the ecosystem allowed for a massive proliferation of fungi. If you look at the layer above “the K2 boundary--” which is the sedimentary layer between meteor/no meteor, dinosaur/no dinosaur-- it is filled with fungi.
We knew there was a catastrophe and we knew that it likely allowed mammals to flourish. But, we still have reptiles (snakes, alligators, lizards, etc.), so why wasn’t there a second reptilian age?
Reptiles have two advantages: they don’t need to eat a lot of food and they can reproduce a lot faster than mammals. But mammals have two advantages over reptiles: our immune system and our blood temperature.
Dr. Arturo and a friend conduct a study and they find that fungi can’t survive anything above 86℉. As the average human body temperature is 98.6℉, fungi thus cannot live in our blood. But reptiles can’t produce their own heat, which is why they’re always laying out in the sun. When the cataclysm happened the reptiles had no way to heat their bodies and that meant that they couldn’t protect themselves from the fungus overload. Dr. Arturo thinks that this is why there was no second reptilian age--our high body temp protected us from fungus invasion.
Now let’s head back to our medical mystery.
All fungi can withstand heat for short periods of time, but when that heat lasts a while the fungus start to adapt and mutate to last longer in the heat. This process is repeated degree by degree until you have a fungus that lives at 98.6℉, giving it the ability to live inside the human body. Dr. Arturo believes that this is what happened with our fungus Candida Auris, it adapted to defeat our heat barrier.
And just as the fungus is learning to jump through our biological hoops, it turns out we’re making it easier for them. A paper published was outlining how the human body temperature has been slowly declining at a rate of .05℉ per decade, meaning our average temperature in the western world is about 97.5℉. I say the western world because they found that the more developed of a country you live in, the more likely it is your body temperature is lower because we don’t have to use our immune system as often.
Now the worry is that the organisms that can survive at high temperatures, their threshold is just below our body temperature. If any of these get into our system it could very well cause a whole number of diseases, much like Candida Auris. And we are talking about tens of thousands, possibly millions, of micro-organisms. As if we didn’t already have plenty of other things to worry about.
This may just seem like a fun fungi story, but there are some practical things to take away.
One, aren’t fungi the coolest?? The dinosaurs couldn’t withstand a meteor but these fun-guys did!
Two, it’s important to know both the dangers and the benefits of fungi and educate yourself on the world around you. Mushrooms are great fungi for you, but not all fungi can be beneficial, much like Candida Auris.
Three, our immunity needs a boost! If COVID-19 wasn’t already a problem enough now we have fungi to worry about too. Take a look at our shop to see what products can help you keep these Fung-NOs out of your body. Mush love all!