Should we worry about a fungal apocalypse?
Battle of the bots. Bing AI vs Bard. Nadella 1, Pichai 0.
The biggest news stories in tech this week?
Elon Musk started force-feeding everyone on Twitter a steady stream of hot takes on “woke mind virus” and the global catastrophic threat of human depopulation (neither of which are real).
And Microsoft’s Bing AI chatbot ran off the rails in an interaction with a New York Times reporter.
As usual, I have thoughts.
Microsoft gave me access to Bing AI before most other people. I’m not entirely sure why, though it could be because I have been writing a lot about AI and ChatGPT.
(Speaking of AI, my science column this week is about using a new AI system to create completely new biological molecules).
Just to be clear. I have mixed feelings about AI. Writing about something that is new and potentially revolutionary is hard. And you get a lot of pushback.
If you play it safe like a Luddite, then you close your mind to the possibilities. If you keep your mind too open, then you fall for all the hype.
I wrote last week that Bing AI has fewer guardrails than ChatGPT. Understandably some people are freaking out about some pretty wild responses from the chatbot. Microsoft has promised to institute changes.
But it really would be a shame if Microsoft decided to turn off Bing AI. Because it is a better product than ChatGPT.
Bing AI gives you referenced links to text, something that ChatGPT does not. It also generates content on current events (whereas ChatGPT stopped at 2021).
That last point is a gamechanger.
I asked Bing AI to write about a current event like the earthquake in Turkey and it came back with something that was acceptable. I also asked it to write about me, and while it wasn’t entirely accurate, it did give me an ego boost. ;-)
Anyway Bing AI is better than Bard because no one has used Bard yet.
Nadella 1, Pichai 0.
All of a sudden everyone is interested in the pandemic potential of fungi. I wonder why.
Actually, I know why. It’s because of HBO’s hit series, The Last of Us.
I wrote about fungal diseases about two years ago at the height of the mucormycosis tragedy in India You can read the column here, and here’s an excerpt—
Many new fungal diseases are also emerging. Certainly, better detection of infections explains some (but not all) of the cases. Candidiasis was not common before the 1950s. Many other fungal diseases were rare until HIV/AIDS and immunosuppressive treatments became common. Overall, we are witnessing an alarming trend.
Deadly fungal infections were thought to only occur in people with weak immune systems, the elderly, and those battling other infections at the same time. But there is accumulating evidence that external factors such as global travel are increasing their prevalence. And over the past decade, microbiologist Arturo Casadevall of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has gathered evidence for a hypothesis involving another culprit — the climate crisis.
A few years ago, Casadevall wondered why only a few hundred of the roughly 1.5 million fungal species cause diseases in mammals (including humans). For comparison, insects are susceptible to around 50,000 fungal species. Among vertebrates, cold-blooded animals such as amphibians are particularly prone to fungal infections. He found that the comfort zone in which most fungi grow in the environment is cooler than the core temperatures of most mammals.
Based on this research, Casadevall proposed an elegant hypothesis that mammals evolved stable and warm core temperatures as a firewall against environmental germs such as fungi. Among fungal species, there are only a few variants that can tolerate warm mammalian core temperatures. This thermal gap has protected us.
But on the flipside, with global temperatures rising, heat tolerant variants are expected to flourish. As the difference between environmental temperatures and body temperature diminishes, we may face fungi that have the potential to cause new diseases in humans.
In fact, this may already be happening. Candida auris is a fungal species that has caused hundreds of deadly outbreaks worldwide. No one on the planet knew of its existence before 2009. Today, it is highly prevalent in India. And in 2011 and 2012, cases of C. auris exploded almost simultaneously on three continents.
C. auris can grow at temperatures higher that those suitable for most fungi. And it may have become tolerant of higher temperatures only recently. Unlike mucormycosis and most other fungal infections, it is contagious. To make matters worse, C. auris is incredibly difficult to remove from surfaces, and many strains are resistant to known antifungal drugs. This fungus represents “a perfect storm” of a new pathogen that can wreak havoc in humans.
Writing in the journal mBio in 2019, Casadevall and colleagues hypothesized “that C. auris may be the first example of a fungal species that has jumped the thermal barrier due to adapting to global warming,” In March of this year, a team led by Anuradha Chowdhary of the Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute at the University of Delhi published the discovery of C. auris strains from a salt marsh and a sandy beach in the Andaman Islands in mBio.
In this scheme, heat-tolerant fungi infected animals that encountered then in the environment, and then spread through people to hospitals in urban areas. While this data does not prove that the climate crisis precipitated the jump of this fungus to humans, it provides evidence of an environmental reservoir— a necessary step in Casadevall’s hypothesis.
If the climate crisis selects fungal strains that thrive in the higher core temperatures of humans, the rise of fungal diseases is all but certain. Unfortunately, the mucormycosis epidemic is only the tip of the iceberg.
That’s it for now. Let that sink in.
Really excellent reportage! That info about the mammalian thermal protection was news to me. I'm very apprehensive about the C. Auris infectivity.