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Fuzzy, Sexy Killers
Fungi seem harmless enough—fuzzy molds and sprouting toadstools. But according to a study in the journal Nature,
fast-moving fungal infections are wiping out bees, frogs, bats, corals, crayfish, and sea turtles; contributing to global warming by felling trees; and threatening our food supply.
Fungi are neither plants nor animals nor bacteria. They belong to a separate kingdom that includes molds, yeasts, lichens, and mushrooms. Their long evolution has given them fearsome advantages. Their spores can survive long trips via wind, water, tire tread, or global shipment. And they're also very good at making whoopee.
"They're very sexy things, fungi," explains study author Matthew Fisher of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London. "They're very creative in the way they can recombine their genes."
When fungi from different parts of the world hook up, the results can be virulent. Emerging fungi species are responsible for 70 percent of the cases in which an infectious disease caused a species to become extinct.
Fungal devastations of bats, bees, and amphibians have received the most press, but Fisher says we should be just as worried about plants. Pine pitch canker, sudden oak death, and blue stain fungus are reducing the number of trees available to sequester carbon dioxide, and fungal infections destroy enough food crops each year to feed 8 percent of the world's population.
Humans are partly to blame, creating stresses that make organisms more vulnerable and acting as a fungi dating service by transporting them around the globe. "We make life easy for them," Fisher says. "We give them new ecosystems to expand into." —Dashka Slater