Today we are a tired but elated group having just come back from a fantastic conference organised by our boss Prof. Mat Fisher and Profs Sarah Gurr and Neil Gow. This 4-day event was hosted by the Royal Society and was aptly named ‘Tackling emerging fungal threats to animal health, food security and ecosystem resilience’. It brought together world leaders in plant, wildlife and human mycological research and attracted attendees from every continent. It was an excellent opportunity to compare progress in combating fungal disease in hitherto separate fields and to draw parallels between diagnoses, treatment and prevention of fungal infections.
With a growing focus on food security and sustainability for a growing global population it is important that we find a solution for crop losses due to fungal pathogens; especially now that the distributions of many are changing and expanding due to climate change. It was shocking to hear Prof. Sarah Gurr talk of the five major fungal crop diseases- wheat stem rust, rice blast, corn smut, soybean rust & potato late blight- and inform us that “if all five struck simultaneously we would only have enough food to feed 37% of the world’s population”. It is not just the impact of these diseases on a global level, but also on an individual level; with many farmers losing their livelihood in affected regions. In Kenya, shockingly, 74% of rice farmers declared bankruptcy during the last outbreak of rice blast. Something needs to be done, and lots of things ARE being done, by very smart people from all over the world. To avoid Prof. Gurr’s worst-case scenario there needs to be cooperation between scientists, policy-makers and farmers, and it is within all of our interests to make this happen.
Next onto the under-estimated burden of fungal diseases in humans. In 2014, the annual global death toll for TB was 1.5 million people and for malaria was 438,000 whilst over 1.6 million individuals succumbed to fungal infections. (This was even picked up by the Daily Mail in 2015! http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2912033/Could-fungus-big-killer-Experts-warn-fungal-diseases-cause-deaths-malaria-tuberculosis.html) Many of the fungi associated with human diseases are commensal and can be found on the skin, in the airways, and in the environment of all humans beings; however they cause problems when we become immunocompromised and are unable to maintain our body’s defences. We heard how fungi form giant cells that are too large to be engulfed by macrophages and others that replicate within the macrophages once engulfed, and about the growing problem of azole drug resistance in treating human fungal infections. Solutions include improved diagnosis of fungal infections, wider access to antifungal drugs, development of new antifungal drugs, combating widespread antifungal resistance by managing their use in the environment, and research on antifungal vaccines; including vaccinating with yeast to protect against pathogenic fungi. Here is one of ours presenting her poster on azole drug resistance in Aspergillus fumigatus:
Then came those like us at Chytrid Crisis, researching emerging fungal diseases in wildlife, from whom we heard about catastrophic declines due to White Nose Syndrome in bats and Snake Fungal Disease in snakes. We heard from those also researching Bd and Bsal- including Karen Lips who was in Panama when mass declines due to Bd were first observed, Frank Pasmans who has been working on Bsal since it caused the population crash of European salamanders in the Netherlands, and Trent Garner who gave a brilliant overview of potential mitigation strategies for Bd. The parallels between these bat, snake and amphibian diseases are striking and we need to work together to save these species, and others, that are threatened by emerging fungal pathogens. Here is our group presenting posters on different aspects of Bd research:
If you would like to find out more about the conference visit the Twitter archive at: http://sco.lt/6m0h3x.