Soo Chan Lee is senior research associate in molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University. Here he explains how scientists are uncovering entirely new species of fungi and dissecting their roles in human health and disease. Questions and answers have been edited.
Fungi play key roles in the ecosystem as a natural decomposer of waste and in the production of cheese, wine, bread and many fermented foods. Anyone who has enjoyed a mushroom pizza knows that fungi can be a food in and of themselves. Fungi are valuable industrially, as they help to produce biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol. They can also produce life-saving medicines such as antibiotics.
Human fungal infections such as candidiasis, aspergillosis, mucormycosis, and cryptococcosis can be fatal to people with weak immune systems. The treatment will vary depending on which fungi caused an infection, but unfortunately we can’t figure out what particular species of fungus we are dealing with by looking under a microscope.
Fungal barcoding provides a molecular method for identifying the species and deciding which type of medicine is most likely to work.