How fungi could cause the next pandemic

Specimens of orange peel fungus (Peziza or Aleuria aurantia), Pyronemataceae.

Specimens of orange peel fungus (Peziza or Aleuria aurantia), Pyronemataceae.
Photo: Editorial Agostini (Getty Images)

Mushrooms are among the strangest living things on Earth. Some are unicellular organisms like bacteria, others are multicellular beings related to plants and animals. Some can even change shape between these lifeforms. No matter what they look like, they are an integral part of the environment: many fungi act as nature’s recyclers, breaking down dead organic matter into something that can be reused by others. And we regularly rely on mushrooms in a variety of ways, including as food.

But mushrooms can also be dangerous and deadly. Some species are notorious animal or agricultural pests; others can make people sick. In her upcoming book in July, Blight: mushrooms and the coming pandemic, Toxicologist and writer Emily Monosson says the fungal problem will only get worse unless we do something soon.

I spoke with Monosson about his inspiration for the book, why mushrooms are such a threat, and how the zombies in HBO’s latest hit, The last of us, could have been made even more disgusting. This following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ed Cara, Gizmodo: The past few weeks have provided people with many opportunities to reflect on mushrooms [as of this interview’s publication, The Last of Us is approaching its season one finale]. So it’s a good time for the release of your book.

Monsson: Yeah, that’s kinda crazy. Halfway through the pandemic. I remember asking my editor, “Do I really have to start writing this?” I mean, who is going to read a book about pandemics after this pandemic? People may still be weary by the time it releases in July, but at least awareness is heightened.

Tip: Yese have written on many topics whose underlying theme is evolution. But what prompted you to focus specifically on mushrooms?

Monsson: First, I would say it was a disease called mildew, which distressed tomatoes in 2009, and has just sailed up the East Coast and skimmed the tomato crops. Turns out it was actually a fungus-like organism. And it’s the same kind of organism that caused potato wilt in Ireland all those years ago.

And then a few years later there was an article in Nature, by a group of scientists who wanted to raise awareness of fungal pathogens of all species as important emerging diseases. This article, combined with seeing what happened with something like late blight, made me want to think more about fungal pathogens.

At the time, I had proposed a book on it, but it was going nowhere. But they just kept coming. In 2016, the CDC started talking about white ears, this human pathogen, a yeast, which entered hospitals. And so it was just kind of like, Okay, this is a real problem, and it would be nice to try to spread the word. Because these things don’t go away.

book cover for

Picture: WW Norton & Company

Thing : Your book is about a coming pandemic. People would hear that and think of something that would infect us. But you cover a myriad of ways fungi can make life a nightmare for people, not just by making us sick directly. What is it about mushrooms that makes them so dangerous to fight?

Monsson: Whether you ask the scientists who work in there and after learning more about it I would say they are an environmental body. Usually they produce spores, which can last for a long time. Some spores can last for days, but other types can last for weeks, months, or even decades. It’s very different from most bacteria and things like viruses. So one problem is that once a fungus takes hold, finds a new host, and starts reproducing, it’s very difficult to get rid of.

And then the other thing is that they don’t always need us or a specific animal as hosts. Some fungi can live in other types of hosts. And again, that just means they don’t leave once they settle in a new area or environment. Even once you treat a fungal infection, it doesn’t necessarily mean it has disappeared from the environment. It may still appear in other places down the road, perhaps.

Thing : What is happening in the world right now that is making mushrooms a growing threat?

Monsson: Most of the diseases, most of the pathogens that I write about have emerged in the last 100 years. And they probably emerged because we moved the fungus from its own territory to another place, and it found new hosts, and it was pretty happy in those new hosts – those new hosts had no defenses. We trade, we move, we move plants and animals. The number of miles traveled by humans and the number of humans traveling around the globe has exploded. So all this movement is just a great opportunity for hitchhiking mushrooms. And then there’s climate change, which allows some fungi to expand into new territories, or possibly onto new hosts.

And the other thing is in humans. Most fungal infections in humans are said to be opportunistic. And we have changed as a population. More and more people are immunocompromised due to illnesses or medications they take. And these drugs are big improvements in health care, but they also leave some people more vulnerable to infection. So we too have changed.

Thing : The main lesson of recent years is that viruses still pose a major threat to humanity. And with bacteria, we have antibiotic resistance, which is more of a slow-moving iceberg. And you argue that we are setting the stage for fungi to become a pervasive threat. Do you feel like there are still steps we can take now to prevent them from becoming a bigger problem?

Monsson: I think one of the best things is awareness. And if you have awareness, then prevention would involve a lot of things. If you want to go to the extreme, some people would like to say that maybe we shouldn’t trade in animals or plants anymore. Something less extreme would be finding better ways to detect the presence of fungi or fungal spores on organisms that are moved around the world. And maybe part of that could be prevention through vaccination, if vaccines can be developed. But I think it’s a difficult thing, because you don’t know what’s next. Which species will be the next emerging fungal pathogen?

Thing : Of course, the show The last of us put mushrooms in everyone’s mind. But were you able to see it, and if so, what was your opinion on how they approach mushrooms?

Monsson: I saw the show, I like it a lot. I don’t like zombie series normally, but I like the series. And I loved the beginning, when they had these scientists on a talk show in the 1960s, and you had one talking about the fungus problem and how climate change could make it worse. And it kind of happened, if not on such a grand scale. I don’t think people become fungal zombies. But it brings up a lot of different things interesting scientific questions that are fun to talk about.

My biggest gripe probably relates to something that changed between the games and the show. In games, I believe, spores are more important, but there is no mention of them in the series. But they mix up a bunch of different aspects of fungi in interesting ways, like underground fungal hyphae.

And then there’s something I was thinking about the other day. How we eat is that we ingest food and then digest it with enzymes. But fungi first release their enzymes and then digest their food. This is how they degrade things in the environment. So instead of zombies biting people, they should actually spit on them.

Thing : It could definitely increase the body horror vibes.

Leave a Comment