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article imageSchoolgirl scientist identifies source of deadly fungus

By Tim Sandle     Aug 25, 2014 in Science
Scientists have located the environmental source of fungal infections that have been sickening HIV patients in Southern California. The discovery is based on the science project of a 13-year-old girl, who spent the summer gathering soil and tree samples.
The fungus is called Cryptococcus gattii and it has been found growing on trees. The fungus causes life-threatening infections of the lungs and brain and is responsible for one third of all AIDS-related deaths. This was based on strong genetic evidence that three tree species — Canary Island pine, Pohutukawa and American sweetgum — serve as environmental hosts for the fungus and acts as sources of many of these human infections.
Scientist were tipped off about the suspected source of the fungus by a schoolgirl, according to Duke University. A few years ago, Duke's chairman of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Joseph Heitman M.D., was contacted by long-time collaborator and UCLA infectious disease specialist Scott Filler, M.D., whose daughter Elan was looking for a project to work on during her summer break. They decided it would be useful to send her out in search of fungi living in the greater Los Angeles area.
The student sampled 109 swabs of more than 30 tree species and 58 soil samples, grew and isolated the Cryptococcus fungus, and then sent those specimens to Springer at Duke. Springer DNA-sequenced the samples from California and compared the sequences to those obtained from HIV/AIDS patients with C. gattii infections. Elan was surprised to find that specimens from three of the tree species were genetically almost indistinguishable from the patient specimens.
The researchers also found that the C. gattii isolated from the environment were fertile, reproducing either by sexual or asexual reproduction.
The current study was led by Deborah J. Springer, Ph.D. of the Center for Microbial Pathogenesis at Duke University School of Medicine. The report into the fungus has been published in the journal PLOS Pathogens. The research is called “Cryptococcus gattii VGIII Isolates Causing Infections in HIV/AIDS Patients in Southern California: Identification of the Local Environmental Source as Arboreal”.
More about Fungus, HIV, Aids, Cryptococcus gattii
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