Tracking fungal pathogens and disease beyond sci-fi television

Los Alamos scientists prepare for mushrooming threats

October 10, 2023

Fungal mycelia grows on red agar, a medium for pathogens. Diseases caused by fungi can affect humans, pets and wild animals and cause massive crop failures. Credit: Dreamstime

By Aaron Robinson

The HBO series “The Last of Us” makes a fungal pandemic seem absurd, and yet all too real. Our neighbors aren’t staggering from their homes like zombies whose heads resemble giant mushrooms, but still, many viewers might feel that twinge of post-pandemic vulnerability. For those of us who study the distribution, evolution and biology of fungal pathogens, the show is on the extreme side, but the underlying message is clear: We need to study and understand whatever future threats are out there.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and others actively monitor fungal pathogens and clinical cases of disease. They have made it abundantly clear that these issues have been a concern for far longer than the ”The Last of Us” has been onscreen. While the television show dramatizes the potential of fungal disease, some of the concerns raised by the show are a reality, such as the lack of reliable diagnosis, treatment and vaccination against fungal pathogens.

Devastating diseases

Diseases caused by fungi are concerning on two fronts—they not only affect humans, pets and wild animals, but they can also devastate agriculture, causing massive crop failure. The very problems we face in the health sector are mirrored in the agricultural sector, and some fungal pathogens can cause disease across both arenas. The range of fungal diseases in plants reads like something from a medieval text: gummy stem blight, corn rust, black root rot, cavity spot, fusarium wilts, sclerotinia rots and more.

Given the potential for disaster caused by these pathogens, I formed a team with fellow scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory to further explore the fungal world, particularly where it intersects with human health. The combination of the Laboratory’s unique detection, modeling and analysis expertise enables us not only to better track and diagnose fungal pathogens and disease, but also to prepare for the possibility of a fungal pandemic through research into novel countermeasures and means of prevention.

Read the rest of the story as it appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.