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Rodents may be the cause of rise of fungal diseases

Researchers found rodents in the Southwestern US were harboring the type of fungi that can cause lung infections in humans.

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A closeup of a marsh rice rat under the sunlight with a blurry background
(Oakland Images via Shutterstock)

By Alice Clifford via SWNS

Rodents are a breeding ground for life-threatening diseases, a new study from the University of New Mexico indicates.

Fungal diseases in humans are on the rise, so scientists have been trying to determine where they come from and why they appear.

Through their research, they found fungal pathogens that cause diseases in humans in the lung tissues of rodents, suggesting that these small creatures may be passing those diseases onto us.

Paris Salazar-Hamm, Ph.D. candidate of Biology at the University of New Mexico, and lead author of the study said: "Our analysis, which specifically focused on lung pathogens that cause disease in humans, detected a wide range of fungi in the lung tissues of small mammals.

“We found that many of the rodents we sampled from areas in the Southwestern US were harboring the type of fungi that can cause lung infections in humans, such as the fungus that leads to Valley Fever, a disease that typically causes flu-like symptoms and can be life-threatening.”

Close up of female doctor hand holding abstract lung hologram on blurry background. Medicine and healthcare concept

Like COVID-19, these diseases can jump from body to body, causing it to spread quickly, as well as evolve and diversify, making the fungi even more harmful to humans.

Scientists used next-generation sequencing, a method that allows a quick assessment of wide-ranging species of fungi, to investigate the rodents.

Dr. Salazar-Hamm said: “We detected the fungus Coccidioides, the cause of Valley Fever, in the lung tissues of animals from Kern County, California, and Cochise and Maricopa Counties in Arizona, areas that have high rates of this disease.

“In addition, we detected sequences from Coccidioides in animals from Catron, Sierra, and Socorro Counties in New Mexico, which is the first time this pathogen has been detected in the environment in this region.”

She added: “This is the first big study using next-generation sequencing to assess the fungi in the lungs of small mammals.

"Our results support the hypothesis that rodents could be a breeding ground for respiratory fungal pathogens.”

This study, published in the journal Frontiers in Fungal Biology, is crucial for scientists to work out where potential diseases could be caught.

Dr. Salazar-Hamm said: “Current forecasts of the distribution of Coccidioides, based on climate and soil conditions, predict that Valley fever will expand substantially northward and eastward over the next century as a result of climate change impacting environmental conditions.

"Our results will inform these modeling efforts by adding valuable information about animals as reservoirs for pathogens.”

Growth of fungal organism Coccidioides colony in a petri dish. (Dr. Libero Ajello via Wikimedia Commons)

Next, scientists plan to look at the health of rodents and see how this may impact the spread and harmfulness of diseases.

Dr. Salazar Hamm said: “We were not able to assess the health of the mammalian hosts from which the lung tissues were acquired.

"Despite the presence of pathogens, it was impossible to say conclusively that there was disease.

“It would be interesting to further explore the impact of the fungi on the mammals.

"That effort would require more detailed information about the general health of the animal in question.”

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