Take, for instance, Cryptococcus gattii – a fungus that lives in soil and is typically found in tropical and subtropical regions. However, anything pleasant about the fungus stops there, as a study in Nature Communications revealed that it can "communicate" with each other to infect more people effectively.
Researchers involved in the study said that C. gattii can "[join] forces inside your body to wreak havoc and cause disease." They noted that the fungal cells take advantage of an unexpected method to "talk" to each other.
The findings shed light on how the fungus can infect healthy people, a strange phenomenon, considering most fungal infections usually target individuals with weakened immune systems. This was evident in 1999, when a pathogenic strain of C. gattii first appeared in British Columbia in Canada – infecting otherwise-healthy people – before spreading to Oregon and Washington.
A person can be infected with C. gattii if he inhales its fungal spores. In some cases, infections due to C. gattii can be deadly, since it causes severe pneumonia-like illness in the lungs, as well as severe brain infections. The infection can also spread to tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord. In a 2010 study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 60 cases of C. gattii were reported in the U.S. from 2004 to 2010. Of the 45 cases with known outcomes, 20 percent (or nine individuals) perished due to the infections. (Related: 14 Natural Antibiotics And Antibacterials That Should Be In Every Home.)
In an earlier study, study author Ewa Bielska, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Birmingham, explained that C. gattii was virulent due to its "remarkable ability to grow rapidly within human white blood cells." In 2014, Bielska's fellow researchers discovered that this rapid growth was the product of a "division of labor," or that the fungal cells communicated to synchronize behaviors and initiate accelerated growth.
For the new study, Bielska and her team were able to analyze how the fungal cells worked together. The microbes relied on extracellular vesicles, or microscopic sacs filled with fluid, to communicate.
Robin May, study senior author and director of the University of Birmingham's Institute of Microbiology and Infection, said that the vesicles function like fungal messengers. The vesicles helped send messages between the fungi and it allowed them to coordinate an attack on the host cell. The researchers noted that this marks the first time that anyone has confirmed a link between extracellular vesicles and fungal virulence.
May said, "Our initial expectation was that the fungus would only be able to communicate within a single host cell, but in fact, we discovered that it can communicate over very large — in microbiology terms — distances and across multiple host cell barriers."
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