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Model mycology: UGA scientists fight fungi for the rest of us

Emily Halnon

It starts out with a cough and slightly slurred speech. Then come the muscle spasms and dramatic mood shifts.

In HBO’s hit show “The Last of Us,” these are the beginning signs that a human has contracted a fungal infection that turns people into zombies and rips through the fabric of modern society.

The premise may sound improbable, but it is based on a very real fungus that really does infect brains and bodies, turning its victims into mindless, zombie-like creatures.

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, known as Cordyceps, is a parasitic fungus that infects insects like ants through spores and uses its new host to infect other insects in the vicinity.

While this fungus is not a threat to humans because of our higher internal body temperatures, others can be serious. Last October, the World Health Organization flagged a list of fungal pathogens that were public health threats, stressing the need to prioritize research and development that strengthens the global response.

“There are at least 1.5 million deaths a year caused by invasive fungal infections,” said Michelle Momany, professor of plant biology in the Franklin College of Arts & Sciences. “But people don’t think about fungal diseases as a serious threat to human lives and public health.”

UGA has become an international leader in fungal research thanks to its interdisciplinary Fungal Biology Group, where researchers focus on better understanding the biology of fungi and the threats fungal pathogens pose to humans and plants.

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Image: From left, Xiaorong Lin, Momany and Aaron Mitchell are three of the top faculty members in UGA’s Fungal Biology Group. Photo of by Jason Thrasher.



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