Floating Fungus: Trouble in the Air?

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Under the light of a high autumnal sun, I stand before a grove of Douglas firs, enjoying the vertigo brought on by gazing skyward at the giants. From a few hundred feet away, a breeze whispers off the Strait of Georgia. It's another spectacular day in Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, one of the most popular camping spots in British Columbia. Bewitched by the beauty, I can almost forget the danger.

Twelve years ago, a sleeping monster awakened, like some B-movie alien, in this central portion of Vancouver Island. It attacked by firing millions of invisible spores, microscopic missiles that could infiltrate a victim's lungs and central nervous system and cause fatal pneumonia or meningitis. The creature's name: Cryptococcus gattii, a fungus thought to have existed solely in tropical and subtropical climates. This strain of C. gattii (SEE-gat-tee-aye) was different. It not only emerged—even thrived—in the Pacific Northwest, far from its traditional environment, but also seemed even more lethal to the young and fit. One such victim was Mike Merriman, a healthy 26-year-old from the Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo. In June of 2006, he developed discomfort in his lower back and abdomen, and then he started coughing. By July he was dead. The fungus had colonized his lungs and central nervous system and shut down his body.

As I wander along the trails, a cool breeze in my face, I realize that the same invisible spores could be swarming around my head. "You'll probably be fine," Karen Bartlett, Ph.D., had assured me a day earlier. Bartlett is the University of British Columbia mycologist who discovered the fungus on the island. Still . . . I bend down to examine a tree trunk, prime real estate for growing up gattii. A furry growth has entwined the base of the trunk and crept into the crevices of bark. My throat tightens. I shake my asthma inhaler and take a pull.

Relax, I tell myself. You'll probably be fine.

"They're tricky little buggers," says Bartlett as she shoves a petri dish dotted with cultured C. gattii spores under my nose for a look-see. Normally I'd need a microscope to see the fungi, but here in her lab, the beasties, stained brown, have grown to the size of pinheads in the agar solution.

I do indeed look, and for a moment I imagine one of the brown spots hopping out of the dish and skittering off into a corner of the lab, Alien-style—or worse, launching an aerial assault up my nose and into my lungs. "Don't worry," Bartlett says. "I'm not killing you by standing here with these." The spores do appear to be flypapered to the glass dish, but then again, as she says, they're tricky buggers.

They all are. From the brewer's yeast used to make ale (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to athlete's-foot fungus (Epidermophyton floccosum, among others) to the black mold in basements (Cladosporium), the fungi world is one vast, fuzzy, funky, freaky, deeply mysterious land of quirk. Mushrooms, mildew, molds--they invade our every nook and cranny. You can find fungi on bird poop and on that fancy plate of truffles. Fungi grow in square-mile swaths in the forest, under the leaf litter. There are even fungi thriving in the subzero Antarctic desert.

"Spores are everywhere," says Gregory Mueller, Ph.D., a mycologist with the Chicago Botanic Garden. "We're being bombarded with them all the time." Don't believe it? David Kadosh, Ph.D., a researcher with the San Antonio Center for Medical Mycology, suggests this experiment: "Put a piece of bread out," he says.

"It's going to mold. This stuff is in the air, it's ready to grow."

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