Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Mesodinium chamaeleon, a strange green creature found in Denmark that lives at the bottom of the sea, is causing researchers to rethink traditional ways of classifying living organisms.

Traditionally there is a difference between animals and plants:

• Animals cannot produce their own energy and must eat other animals or plants to get energy for their survival.

• Plants use photosynthesis to get energy from the sun for their survival. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in plant cells that enables photosynthesis to happen, and is one of the defining traits of plants.

Mesodinium chamaeleon does both.

Using its thousands of hairs it moves rapidly through water, finding plants to eat – like an animal.  And when it eats the plant, it becomes a plant:

By keeping the chlorophyll granules active in its stomach, Mesodinium chamaeleon uses their ability to convert sunlight into energy. This photosynthesis makes Mesodinium chamaeleon a plant.

After a while, it digests the plant and then turns back into an animal, that then goes hunting for a new plant to consume.

The sea slug Elysia chlorotica was once described as “a leaf that crawls”. They use straws to suck chloroplasts (sacs that contain chlorophyll) from algae and keep those chloroplasts for months, living off the energy of photosynthesis.

Till the 1970s scientists classified living organisms as either animals or plants. Since then specialists have added three kingdoms: fungi, protozoans and algae.

Just as there are creatures that are male that turn into female, or become both to self fertilize, this complex web of life has a category of beings that are neither animals or plants or, in another way, both animals and plants.

Some animals look like plants. Others are animals that turn into plants, or vice versa ! There is no combination that Nature has not thought of first !

The bizarre "sea lilies." are animals, despite their plant-like appearance. The sea lily stalk is fastened to the sea bottom by a stalk and has a bulbous body with frond-like tentacles. But it has a mouth, a gut and an anus (near the mouth!) and feeds on microscopic plants and animals.  

The amazingly coloured sea anemone is not a flower. It spends its life attached to rocks on the sea bottom, or on coral reefs, waiting for fish to pass close enough to ensnare them within its venom-filled tentacles.

There are over 1,000 species of anemones. Sea anemones are animals, but they look so much like plants that they are named after a group of flowers. They can move and feed on other unsuspecting organisms that get trapped in their tentacles. In fact, sea anemones belong to a group of animals called cnidarians, that also includes jellyfish. Interestingly, there are even components of their nervous system that are the same as humans’. Their bodies are composed of an adhesive pedal disc, or foot, a cylindrical body, and an array of tentacles surrounding a central mouth. The tentacles are triggered by the slightest touch, firing a harpoon-like filament into their victim and injecting a paralyzing neurotoxin. The helpless prey is then guided into the mouth by the tentacles. But they get their oxygen and sugar through green algae whom they live with. There is a cnidarian called the “Venus flytrap sea anemone” that completely looks the plant Venus Flytrap which eats insects. It is an animal that looks like a plant that imitates a carnivorous plant that feeds like an animal (Ooph!) The Venus flytrap, despite being a plant, feeds on other organisms—and some of its parts move faster than its animal prey.

Corals are not plants. They are animals. Many groups of animals do not move, and live attached like plants to a surface for most of their life, including sponges, corals, mussels and barnacles.

Seaweeds are not plants. They are protists - organisms that belong to the kingdom that includes protozoans, bacteria, and single-celled algae and fungi. Seaweeds may have been the ancestors of all animals and plants. Protists are able to use an animal-like behaviour (eating other organisms) to acquire plant-like traits (photosynthesis).

Mushrooms are not plants. They are fungi and there is a huge variety. Other fungi are rust, yeasts (used to make bread and beer), and slime moulds (like those that grow on old fruit). Mushrooms are often treated like vegetables, but fungi are actually closer to animals than plants. Like plants, they do not move, but they  cannot use the energy of sunlight directly through photosynthesis. Their source of energy are other organisms. But instead of “hunting” them, they grow on top of them (soil, trees, human feet), or on top of decaying dead organisms (dead bark, dead animals, your bread). Eating a mushroom is much closer to eating a hamburger than other veggie substitutes.

Algae are aquatic  single-celled life forms that appear as a kind of growth, or slime, on top of bodies of water. They look like plants without roots, or leaves, but they are not. Nori seaweed which wraps sushi, red dulse (a snack in Ireland and Iceland that some claim tastes like bacon when fried), kelp (which is a key ingredient in many Asian meals) - all of them are unrelated to plants. The fronds of kelp have three parts: a stem, leaf-like blades and gas-filled spheres, or bladders, which float the kelp toward the surface where the penetration of sunlight is at its highest. The fronds are anchored to the seafloor by a part of the algae known as the holdfast, which is a tangled ball but has no roots, as is the case with the roots of flowering plants. And, unlike flowering plants that absorb nutrients through their roots, kelp absorbs nutrients through all parts of its tissues. Kelp reproduces both sexually and asexually.

Euglena are not plants, animal or fungi. They are green freshwater organisms with a red eyespot and a tail, found in still waters where they may bloom in numbers sufficient to colour the surface of ponds and ditches green or red. Euglena is a plant, because it is able to produce its own food by photosynthesis when light is available.  But, like an animal, it moves and feeds on food, whenever it needs to feed, by engulfing the food with its body when sunlight is not available. It’s eyespot is light sensitive and can be compared to our eyes. So far scientists have refused to put it into any category !

As scientists become better at their jobs they will find that all beings are the same. We knew decades ago (The Secret Life of Plants ) that trees hear, have emotions, react to negativity. One day, with more sophisticated technology, we will realize that they are us - animals - who simply live in a different way.

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Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

A few days ago I was on my early morning walk when a crow sitting on my gate started cawing to me. He was very agitated and I stood there trying to understand what he wanted. After two minutes I turned my back and started walking off. Immediately he flew at my head and pulled my hair. I turned around mystified and, because I didn’t know what else to do, I brought him a biscuit and water. He took a piece, honed it against the gate till it became a swallowable size, gave me one last disgusted look and flew off.

Crows and ants are my “thing”. So smart, so elegant, so sophisticated, so family minded, so disciplined, everything that humans should be and are not.  Every few months I write about them, and each time it is about a new facet of their intelligence which so outshines mine.

What is intelligence? Flying to a country several oceans away and landing in the same tree. Is that not uncommon intelligence? But we only measure intelligence by comparing it to things we do, like mimicking human speech, or adding two and two.

According to a study, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, crows have a sharp memory for human faces and can even remember which person is dangerous. Even if they meet the same person in a new place, they will recognize them. In an experiment, researchers in masks held the bodies of dead crows while laying out food for live ones. The crows rejected the food, alerted all the other crows and attacked the researchers. When the researchers returned weeks later wearing the same masks and without the dead crows, the birds continued to harass them. No food was picked up in the area for days after. When a crow encounters a mean human, it will teach other crows how to identify the human. Crows recognize cars, gaits and even timings, and they hold grudges.

Researchers captured 12 crows while wearing one face mask, and then housed them and fed them wearing another. After four weeks in captivity, the authors imaged the crow's brains and they found that, like humans, the birds have the ability to recognize people tied to their experiences. When shown the face of their captors, the threatening face "activated circuitry known in humans and other vertebrates to be related to emotion, motivation, and conditioned fear learning". In contrast, when they saw the caretaker face, it activated areas of the brain tied to associative learning, motivation, and hunger. In other words, much like humans, the crows recognize faces, and link them to emotions and memory.

How smart are they?  In 2018 a study done by Von Bayern, Danel, Auersperg, Mioduszewska and Kacelnik, Compound tool construction by New Caledonian crows, published by Nature Scientific Reports, used eight wild New Caledonian crows. In phase I, the birds were provided a long stick and a baited test box where food was within reach when using the stick, but not without it.  In phase II instead of a single long stick, they were given a hollow cylinder and a second, thinner cylinder that needed to be combined in order to generate a tool long enough to reach the food.  In phase III, the birds were given new combinable items. In the final phase, birds were presented a bait box that required the combination of more than two elements.

The birds passed the initial tool test, then combined the two elements to get the food and then used this knowledge to combine the new objects. In the final phase, one bird succeeded in making a tool that required more than two elements. These findings showed that New Caledonian crows are smarter than chimpanzees and gorillas in making compound tools. New research shows that New Caledonian crows carve thin strips of wood into skewers, and bend wires into hooks, and keep their favorite stick tools cached in “toolboxes” for further use!

In another study of Caledonian crows, the researchers set up a “vending machine” that could be operated by putting a piece of paper of a certain size into a slot, which would then release a treat. The crows quickly learned how to put the paper into the vending machine to get food. Then the crows were given paper of the wrong size for the vending machine. They had no reference of how big to make the paper, except from their memory. The crows made the paper into the right size and shape without any problem.

Aesop’s famous fable “The Crow and the Pitcher” tells of a thirsty crow who drops pebbles into a pitcher with water near the bottom, raising the water level high enough to let the bird drink. Scientists, trying to corroborate this story, found that crows given a similar problem dropped stones into a tube containing water, but not into a tube containing sand. They dropped dense objects into the water until the water came within reach. They did not select objects that would float in the water, nor did they select ones that were too large for the container. Human children gain this understanding, of volume displacement, around the ages of five to seven. Crows do indeed understand basic cause-effect relations.

A recent research collaboration, between Moscow State University and the University of Iowa, has discovered that crows are able to solve problems that require abstract thinking. For example, sameness and differentness are key abstract ideas, because two or more items of any kind—coins, cups, caps, or cars—can be the same as or different from one another. Analogical reasoning is considered to be the pinnacle of cognition and it only develops in humans between the ages of three and four.  The team trained crows to match items that were the same as each other (same colour, same shape, or same number). Next, the birds were tested to see if they could match objects that had the same relationship to each other. For example, a circle and a square would be analogous to red and green rather than to two oranges. The crows grasped the concept the first time, without any training in the concepts of "same and different."

Crows have relatively large brains for their body size, compared to other animals. Their brains have a higher neuronal density – the number of neurons per gram of brain than primates. So, they pack more processing power into their small brains.

I am still puzzled. What could that crow have been saying to me? 

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Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

I meet so many mothers who won’t let their children walk barefoot in the house or the park, won’t let them touch snails, won’t let them grasp mud or go out in the hot rain of the monsoon, won’t let them near any animals and refuse to keep a pet because it might bring in bacteria. Their children wear socks throughout the year, have no idea what a plant is, apart from the cut flowers they see in vases at home.

And they are sicker than most children.

For decades paediatricians warned mothers that if they wanted their children allergy free they should keep animals out of the house.

By the early 2000s, a number of studies showed the opposite - that exposure to pets in the very early stages of life  confers protective benefits and prevents the development of allergic rhinitis, asthma and eczema. Of the nine studies analyzed in 2011, six detected lower levels of IgE antibodies and 15 to 21 percent less eczema in children who had been exposed to cats or dogs as soon they were born.

Allergies have been on the rise since the 20th century. Even in a country where nutrition levels are higher, like the USA, 8-10% of children have asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. It causes recurring bouts of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. Conventional wisdom says that  reducing allergenic substances at home will help lessen asthma symptoms.

However the Urban Environment and Childhood Asthma (URECA) study, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), points in the opposite direction :  that exposure to certain allergens and bacteria early in life, before asthma develops, may protect children from asthma. Since 2005, URECA has tracked newborns who are at high risk for developing asthma, because at least one parent has asthma or allergies, for 7 years. Their findings were published in 2017, in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Of the 442 children, 130 (29%) had asthma at age 7. The children who didn’t have it had , strangely enough, higher levels of cockroach, mouse, and cat/dog bacteria in the dust samples, collected from the children’s homes, during the first 3 years of life starting at 3 months.

“Our observations imply that exposure to a broad variety of indoor allergens, bacteria early in life may reduce the risk of developing asthma,” says URECA principal investigator. The microbes that pets carry into the home from outdoors, could mature baby’s developing immune system and train it to fend off assaults from allergens.

Researchers at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland, writing in the journal Pediatrics, say that babies who grow up in homes with a dog or a cat — have a lower risk of allergies than children who live pet-free. Their study found that living with household dust from homes with a dog, prevented infection with a common respiratory virus that is thought to increase the risk of childhood asthma.

The researchers followed 397 children, born in Finland between 2002 -5, and found that babies who grew up in homes with pets were 44% less likely to develop an ear infection and 29% less likely to receive antibiotics, compared with pet-free babies. Overall, babies who lived with a dog were 31% more likely to be healthy in their first year than babies without a dog; kids from homes with cats were 6% more likely to be healthy than those in cat-free families. The study found that children with pets were healthier overall. But this varies: the children who grew up with indoor dogs only, had more infections that than those whose dogs went out every day, suggesting that when animals are allowed to bring in more dirt and microbes from outdoors, it helps strengthen babies’ immune systems faster.

Research at the University of Alberta, published in the journal Microbiome, shows infants exposed to dirt and bacteria from furry family pets, especially dogs, showed much higher levels of two types of gut microbes associated with lower risks of obesity and allergic disease.

746 infants, in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development Study between 2009-2012,  also showed that those who grew up with dogs had lower rates of asthma and more diverse groups of microbes in their guts. The study also suggests having pets in the house could reduce the chances of a mother passing on a strep infection during birth, which can cause pneumonia in newborns.

Scientists at the University of San Diego Knight Lab, which is doing one of the largest studies on microbes in humans, has found that living with dogs provides the body protective benefit. Nearly a thousand species of microbes live inside the human gut and they play an important role in the health of the human by bolstering the immune system. Each species has a different impact and, without exposure to a diversity of bacteria, the body doesn’t learn how to differentiate between dangerous and harmless bacteria. This theory has emerged after more than a dozen studies showed that children born into families with significant farm animal exposure had fewer instances of asthma and allergies, compared with those that had no exposure to farm animals.

In a 2010 study, done in the University of California, researchers discovered that homes with dogs had a far greater abundance of bacteria than those with no pets. The scientists then researched on whether the dog microbe rich house dust would protect mice against allergens. It did. In 2016, the scientists went ahead to examine the faeces of 308 babies less than a year old. The results, published in Nature Medicine, showed that babies with the highest risk of developing allergies and asthma lacked dog exposure.

In the latest study, scientists from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden looked at another angle: if having more than one pet would increase the benefit.

They looked at data from two previous studies. One of them had tracked 1,029 children from infancy to age 8. 49% children, who had not had pets at home during their first 12 months of life, had allergies. This fell to 43 per cent in children who, as babies, had lived with one pet, and 24 per cent for children who had lived with three pets. Two of the children had lived with five pets – neither of them had allergies.

In another study, tracking 249 children from birth to 9 years of age, the rate of allergies was 48 per cent for children with no pets in their first year, 35 per cent for children with exposure to one pet, and 21 per cent for children who had lived with two or more pets.

This proves that more exposure to pets means more immunity Studies have found that children who grow up on a farm with livestock have a lower risk of allergies.

Can exposure to animals help pregnant  women’s growing babies ? A 2009 study in Europe showed that the umbilical cord blood in pregnant women with farm exposure had more active neonatal immune cells. This means that the microbes in the pregnant mother are doing something positive for the child.

We’ve known for years that dogs were good for our mental health. Now there is clear proof that those health benefits go even deeper. Pets prevent allergies. Exposure to an animal increases the baby’s immunity. The more cats or dogs you live with as an infant, the less your chances of getting asthma, hay fever and eczema, to name a few diseases. 

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Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Do people really understand climate change and global warming? A few days of unseasonal chill brings back the skeptic in everyone – if the earth is getting hotter then why we are experiencing low temperatures, is a common question.

That the earth is getting hotter is no longer a moot question. It is. But will the heat kill you? Yes. But not directly. You can still walk barefoot on the grass without getting your feet burnt!

You will get killed by the viruses, the insects, the tsunamis and cyclones, the jellyfish in the oceans, the lack of water.

The new kings of the earth are getting ready to take their thrones: mosquitoes.

Just as birds flock to warmer areas when winter settles in, wild creatures seek out weather that suits them. But a changing climate is moving that comfort zone for many animals, including disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes are the deadliest animals in the world. Their ability to carry and spread disease to humans causes millions of deaths every year. The worldwide incidence of dengue has risen 30-fold in the past 30 years, now infecting as many as 400 million people a year, with a quarter of them sick enough to be hospitalized, and more countries are reporting their first outbreaks of the disease. Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever are all transmitted to humans by the Aedes aegypti  and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, to name just two species. (Malaria spread by the Culex mosquito needs a whole article to itself).

And, global warming is letting them take over the world.

Published in Nature Microbiology in March 2019 , Scientists from Boston Children's Hospital, Oxford University, University of Washington, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Universite Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) have combined all the available data  using climate, urbanization, migration and human travel and made prediction models  of the likely spread of two key disease-spreading mosquitoes -- Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. The models forecast that by 2050, 49 percent of the world's population will live in places where these species are established, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rates. "We find evidence that if no action is taken to reduce the current rate at which the climate is warming, pockets of habitat will open up across many urban areas with vast amounts of individuals susceptible to infection,"

The team gathered data on the distributions of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus over time, in more than 3,000 locations, starting from the 1970s. They mapped current locations which they considered suitable as mosquito habitats, then projected their suitability in 2020, 2050 and 2080, based on various climate models, projections of urban growth and other variables. They included human migration and travel patterns, using census data and mobile phone records.

Their findings : Aedes aegypti  has spread north at a relatively constant rate, about 150 miles per year. Aedes albopictus spread most quickly between 1990 and 1995. In Europe, Aedes albopictus has spread faster, advancing from 62 miles per year to 93 miles per year in the past five years.

Aedes aegypti is predicted to spread not just within its current tropical range, but also in new temperate areas in the U.S. and China, reaching as far north as Chicago and Shanghai, respectively, by 2050. Aedes albopictus, is forecast to spread widely throughout Europe over the next 30 years. It's also expected to arrive in northern U.S. and the highland regions of South America and East Africa. If climate change isn't curbed by 2050, the spread is predicted to be even greater. Zika virus started two years ago in South America and has already spread very fast, despite border control measures.

Climate change is the next great health threat, says Prof Paul Auerbach co-author of the book Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health. As the globe warms, mosquitoes will roam beyond their current habitats, shifting the burden of diseases, like malaria, dengue, chikungunya and West Nile virus, to temperate and colder regions

Stanford biologist Erin Mordecai, and her colleagues from Stanford Medical School have also forecast how climate change will alter where mosquito species are most comfortable, and how quickly they spread disease. Economic development and cooler temperatures have largely kept mosquito-borne diseases out of wealthier Northern Hemisphere countries, but climate change will tip the scales in the other direction.

Their findings: malaria is most likely to spread at 25 degrees Celsius (78 degrees Fahrenheit) while the risk of Zika is highest at 29 degrees Celsius (84 degrees Fahrenheit). Carriers of dengue need the warmest climates, so will continue to plague hot regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus, however, prefer a more temperate climate, so will migrate to cooler regions as the climate warms.

According to a study by Dr Soeren Metelmann et al of the University of Liverpool, almost all of England and Wales could be warm enough for the aedes species by the 2060s. Metelmann and colleagues created a model that combines knowledge of the life cycle of the mosquito with UK climate predictions from NASA for the period 2060–2069. So far tropical mosquitoes come with travellers to the UK in warm summer months and survive – and even breed – for a few weeks before disappearing in the winter. But his team’s research shows that in the near future such introductions could lead to the establishment of resident populations that survive the winter.

An international team, including Moritz Kraemer at the University of Oxford, has done an independent study that predicts that the mosquitos will spread throughout Europe over the next 30 years. Originally from East Asia, the insects have been spreading across Europe since the 1970s and are now found as far north as Germany and south-east England. In the last decade there have been outbreaks of chikungunya in Italy, showing that the spread of such mosquito-borne viruses within Europe is possible. By 2080 they predict that the mosquito will be in 197 countries worldwide, with 20 of those detecting its presence for the first time.

The mosquito seems to operate like a heat-driven missile of disease. Scientists say the hotter it gets, the better the mosquito is at transmitting a variety of dangerous illnesses. Mosquitoes live 10-12 days and that is how long it takes a virus to grow in its gut, making it infectious. Warmer air incubates the virus faster in the cold blooded mosquito, so the insect has more time to be infectious. Higher temperatures speed up larval development, increasing the number of adult populations, the autumnal development of the immature and consequently the increase of eggs over winter. Warmer temperatures make the mosquito hungrier, so it takes more blood meals and spreads more infection. Warmer temperatures also increase the mosquito population.

Zika, for instance, has been declared a global public health emergency after being linked to brain deformities in babies in South America. Zika outbreaks depend on temperature and drought. Recife, Brazil, the largest city in the Zika-struck region, saw its hottest September-October-November on record, about 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal, according to NASA data.

Aedes albopictus, the vector of a known vector of chikungunya virus, dengue virus and dirofilariasis, has undergone a dramatic global expansion facilitated by human activities, in particular the movement of used tyres and ‘lucky bamboo’ (single reason for its spread in Belgium and the Netherlands)– those horrible sticks they put in glasses of water and give to chief guests. It was first reported in Europe in 1979 in Albania. In 1985 it was first reported in Texas, USA . Now it is in 32 US states, including Hawaii. In Latin America it was first reported in Brazil in 1986. In Africa, it was first detected in 1990 in South Africa. It is now listed as one of the top 100 invasive species by the Invasive Species Specialist Group. This mosquito is already showing signs of adaptation to colder climates, which may result in disease transmission in new areas. It has already caused outbreaks of chikungunya in Italy and France and dengue in France and Croatia.

Its not just the spread of disease. Aedes albopictus is currently considered a serious biting nuisance for humans, where it is significantly reducing the quality of life. Adult females bite aggressively, usually during the day, both indoors and outdoors. Its prevalence has been linked to a reduction in children’s outdoor physical activity time, a factor contributing to childhood obesity.

Traditionally the aedes albopictus needs a mean winter temperature of 0 degrees C to permit egg overwintering, a mean annual temperature of 11 degrees C for adult survival and activity, and about 500 mm of annual rainfall. A summer temperature of 25‒30 degrees Celsius is required for optimum development. There are now reports of populations establishing in areas with lower mean temperatures (5‒28.5°C) and lower rainfall (290 mm annually).

Aedes albopictus can be the vector of at least 22 other viruses, including yellow fever virus, Rift Valley fever virus, Japanese encephalitis virus, West Nile virus. So, its spread is significant to human survival.

Can a mosquito carry more than one disease at the same time? Can someone get more than one disease from a single bite? Studies done in Gabon and India show that humans can be infected with chikungunya and dengue at the same time. Coinfection poses a challenge for accurate diagnosis, particularly when symptoms, such as fever and aches, can be similar.

Remember this every time you eat meat or allow a tree to be cut – the two biggest reasons for climate change. 

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Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Candida auris is a dangerous fungal infection that emerged in 2009 in Japan and, in just a few years, has spread round the world, especially in hospitals. It is a superbug: a germ that has evolved defences against common medicines and cannot be treated by the fungal medications now available. These include antifungals such as fluconazole, the standard antifungal drug in many countries, and echinocandins.

Once the germ is present, it is hard to eradicate it from a facility. Some hospitals have had to bring in special cleaning equipment, and even rip out floor and ceiling tiles, to get rid of it.

It is a life threatening fungus with a high death rate. It has been identified in Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Kuwait, Israel, Venezuela, Colombia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Other countries have it, but probably cannot identify the fungi because the specialized laboratory methods needed to do so are not available.

People with weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable - newborns, the elderly, people who are sick with other infections, diabetics, people who have undergone broad-spectrum antibiotic or antifungal therapy. The rise of C. auris has been little publicized because it is relatively new. Outbreaks have been played down, or kept confidential, by hospitals even governments, as publicizing an outbreak would scare people into not going to hospitals. In America, even the Centre for Disease Control is not allowed to make public the location, or name of hospitals involved in outbreaks.

The symptoms of C. auris — fever, aches, fatigue — are not unusual, so it is hard to recognize the infection without testing. The next step is blood poisoning / sepsis, coma, organ failure and death. The fungus can colonize on human skin, or surfaces, and live for a long period of time, allowing it to spread to new patients.

One reason is the indiscriminate doling out of antifungals by the medical community. But even more harmful is the use of antifungals in modern agriculture/animal husbandry.

It is clear that Candida auris’s resistance can be traced to industrial agriculture’s mass application of fungicides which are similar in molecular structure to human antifungal drugs.

Wheat, banana, barley, apple, potatoes, soya bean, grapes, corn, stone fruit, are some of the varied crops that fungicides are used on.

Before 2007 six main classes of fungicides were rarely used. Azoles, morpholines, benzimidazoles, strobilurins, succinate dehydrogenase inhibitors and anilinopyrimidines. Now they are common – with azoles leading the pack. Azoles, used in both crop protection and medicine, are broad-spectrum fungicides, annihilating a wide range of fungi.

It cannot be a coincidence that Candida auris has developed resistance to the azole antifungals, including fluconazole, amphotericin B, and echinocandins.

C. auris has probably been fought off for centuries by the human system. It is only now that it has become immune to human intervention, and can enter the bloodstream.

In an effort to identify the source of the infection, an international team collected fungal germs from hospitals across Pakistan, India, South Africa, and Venezuela in 2012–2015.

They found azole resistance in all – but the strains were varied and related to the fungicide that was used in that country. In response to wide exposure to fungicides in the field, each strain evolved its own unique solution to the problem. This fungus spread and diversified, because patients and crops, through agricultural trade, migrate.

In 2015, scientists discovered that the Candida auris genome had several genes of a superfamily (MFS). MFS effectively destroys broad classes of drugs. It permits C. auris to survive an onslaught of antifungal drugs. They also found that the C. auris genome also had many genes that increased its virulence.

Candida auris is not the only fungus on the cusp of multidrug resistance. There are many more which plants and humans are becoming resistant to.

One fungus, Aspergillus fumigatus causes infection in the lungs and is a major cause of mortality. Azole antifungals, itraconazole, voriconazole, and posaconazole, have long been used to treat pulmonary asperillogosis. In the last decade it has developed a resistance to these drugs, causing the death of lakhs of people each year.

Studies comparing long-term azole users and patients just beginning to take the drug have shown that drug-resistant A. fumigatus was prevalent in both groups, suggesting that resistance came from the food they ate and the antifungals used in fields, rather than in the medicine they took. Agricultural, rather than medical reasons.

In many field studies scientists have found fungicide resistant A. fumigatus in the soil /crops across the world. In simple terms, due to agricultural practices, Aspergillus is entering hospitals already adapted to the slew of antifungal cocktails designed to check its spread. By using azoles to control fungi on fruit and grain, conditions have been created to accelerate drug resistance in human patients.

Aspergillusfumigatus and Candida auris share similar geographical distributions.

One would have thought that both these funguses would have been enough for governments to realize the acute danger its people were in and to phase out all fungicide.

But, instead, government policy has actively promoted the expansion of fungicide use.

Agricultural azole fungicides comprise a third of the total fungicide market. Twenty-five different forms of agricultural azole fungicides are being used in millions of tonnes, compared to just three forms of medical azoles. Fungicides use to control soyabean rust have quadrupled between 2002 to 2006. 30% of corn and wheat had fungicides applied in 2009 and now it is more than 50%. Boscalid fungicide is now commonly used in fruit and vegetables. 33 different fungicides are used on potatoes.

Global sales have tripled since 2005, from $8 billion to $21 billion in 2017, expanding not only in sales but also in geographic distribution.

And, of course, all the fungicide leaches into the water, and you drink it.

Climate change brings heavy unseasonal rains and drought and higher temperatures. This means more funguses. And more fungicides. Unless the government finds a better organic way now.

Instead of blaming hospitals and hospital workers for contamination, we should be looking at agricultural bans of antibiotics and fungicides. Various Indian agriculture ministers, and prime ministers, have promised in Parliament to do so – but have done the exact opposite. As time goes on companies will propose more genetically modified crops to, supposedly, combat funguses, and these will prove to be as deadly as GM Cotton and require even more deadly fungicides in time. As I see it, large chemical companies run governments and the world. And you and I are the victims.

There is so much empirical evidence that simply rotating crops and putting different crops together, like soya bean and flax, can greatly remove funguses. In California, strawberry producers have found that planting broccoli, between rotations of strawberry crops, removes fungus.

Scientists have discovered that instead of azole fungicides to control blight in potatoes, silica works much better.

Organic farming supports good fungi, which crowd out pathogenic fungi. Reducing chemical fertilizers and limiting tillage creates beneficial strains of fungi that form beneficial relationships with plant roots .Crop rotations, the incorporation of legumes, and the cultivation of soil aggregates, instead of burning, create good conditions for soil microbiota.

Leaving small wild areas also removes fungal depredation. For instance, a study done by University of Michigan and Vandemeer, on agroecological fungal control in coffee, found Mycodiplosis fly larvae, from nearby wild areas, feed on the coffee rust in Mexico and Puerto Rico.

What we are doing to our farmers is giving them absolutely the wrong information and tools – of which fungicides are one. Monocultures need fungicides and both cause disease. Agribusiness, and their governments, views nature as their enemy. So wiping out local ecologies and the benefits these offer in helping farmers enrich their soils, clean their water, pollinate their plants, feed their livestock, and control pests—pathogenic fungi among them—means the largest companies can now sell their poisons to a captive market. There must be some reason that our Indian governments refuse to train agricultural scientists, and are happy to have totally ignorant people working in Krishi Vigyan Kendras. Could it be a business plan? Financed not just by pesticide companies but by hospitals and the medical industry? Is there any difference between the rich and poor if both don’t have food safety?

Long before climate change finally does us in, it is catastrophic superbug outbreaks that are now killing millions. While data is available, it is rarely taken seriously by politicians. In the US alone 2 million illnesses and thousands of deaths are caused by drug resistant infections. In India it would be at least a crore, because we indiscriminately use medicines on animals grown for food and on crops. We need an intelligent far sighted humane government. 

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