Fungi and Disease

Some Topics

My Blastomycosis Story

Inhaled fungal spores can infect the lungs and spread to other parts of the body. Blastomycosis is one fungus that grows inside the body in yeast form. These yeast cells can cause severe, invasive infection that is sometimes fatal because the diagnosis is not made and effective treatment is not prescribed. The yeast cells spread like cancer cells through the blood stream and can grow in every body tissue.

I had the dubious opportunity of studying fungal lung infection when I contracted the disease in the summer of 2006. My symptoms -- chest pain, fever, fatigue, shortness of breath and weight loss -- progressed slowly over several weeks. I knew I had an unfamiliar and serious kind of infection that felt increasingly life threatening. Throat swab culture and sputum culture did not reveal the identity of the infection and anti-bacterial antibiotics were not helpful.

I eventually discovered yeast cells under the microscope in mucous samples that I coughed up. I discovered dense clusters of budding yeast cells which I had never seen before. With help from online information about fungi, I identified a fungus that resembled blastomycosis, a known pathogen. This dimorphic fungus exists in nature in mycelial phase and converts to yeast at body temperature. The organism grows near water, in rotting wood. When the mycelia form dries in the summer heat, it develops spore bearing structures that release spores into the air. Animals and humans who inhale the spores become infected. Sometimes outbreaks of infection can be traced to an identifiable source, but most infections are sporadic and the source is not identified.

There is always a logic to the life cycles of organisms. Fungi are ancient creatures with a primitive survival logic. Spore reproduction spreads fungi over distances of meters to hundreds of kilometers by airborne transport. Adding a warm body yeast phase to the life cycle adds a reservoir of infection and another transport vehicle. I discovered that the mucous that I coughed up contained yeast cells that grew into a mycelial form of fungus. As as the yeasts cool, they transform into a filamentous fungus that could grow on and and in animal tissues, wet wood and other organic matter. I could spread the fungus in nature by coughing, spitting and probably by leaving feces near shorelines. Fortunately, projecting yeasts into the air will not spread the infection to another person. The fungus is set in its ways; mycelia (eat wood and other things); dry out (time to release spores); spores infect volunteer carriers who grow and then release yeasts that cool and transform into mycelia to eat wood and other things...

The fungal infection taught me many different things. I discovered a two slide culture technique that allowed me to observe the conversion of yeast cells to a mycelial form that developed as the yeast cells cooled to room temperature. This culture method gave me ample opportunity to watch the mycelial growth. I also recorded interactions among my immune cells and the infecting yeast cells by examining stained slides of fresh sputum samples.

In this report, I have included a description of the 2 slide culture and a collection of photomicrographs that I took over several months. The medical care I received was disappointing. I am concerned for others who develop this infection. It is unlikely that they will be diagnosed.
See my reflections on an illness.

The following photomicrograph show white, unstained yeast cells of different sizes and dark stained lymphocytes that often attach to yeast cells. In other slides, dense clusters of macrophages and neutrophils are also seen. The immune defense involves the coordinated attack of different cell types with different jobs. The yeast cells are apparently difficult to kill.

My lymphocytes (with dark stained nuclei) attacking blastomycosis cells 1000 X Fresh sputum sample. One giant yeast cell is obvious, other small, recently budded yeast cells are more numerous.

See Image library for detailed study of this dimorphic fungal pathogen.


Fungi Everywhere

A profusion of fungi exists in the environment. Some fungi are able to cause an invasive infection in otherwise healthy individuals. Other fungi are opportunistic fungi that become invasive when immune defenses are compromised. Diagnosis of fungal infection is difficult. There are many problems when you try to connect a test result to a disease. Fungi are so abundant and there are so many varieties in every environment that it is seldom easy to pick just one cause among many. Fungi are inhaled and ingested. Foods always contain fungal spores and actively growing molds. Attempts to culture fungi often fail; only a small number grow in the culture media commonly used. Some new methods of detecting fungal DNA may be useful but development of reliable tests is slow and expensive.

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