Disease-causing strains of Fusarium prevalent in plumbing drains

Dec 21, 2011
The Fusarium species cultured here are commonly found in sink drains. A new study found that about 70 percent of Fusarium samples taken from drains belong to one of the six genetic types most often associated with human infections. Credit: Public Information, Penn State

A study examining the prevalence of the fungus Fusarium in bathroom sink drains suggests that plumbing systems may be a common source of human infections.

In the first extensive survey of its kind, researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences sampled nearly 500 sink drains from 131 buildings -- businesses, homes, university dormitories and public facilities -- in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and California.

They analyzed fungal DNA to compare the spectrum of Fusarium species and sequence types found in drains with those recovered from .

The study identified at least one Fusarium isolate in 66 percent of the drains and in 82 percent of the buildings. About 70 percent of those isolates came from the six sequence types of Fusarium most frequently associated with human infections.

"With about two-thirds of sinks found to harbor Fusarium, it's clear that those buildings' inhabitants are exposed to these fungi on a regular basis," said lead investigator Dylan Short, who recently completed his doctorate in . "This strongly supports the hypothesis that plumbing-surface biofilms serve as reservoirs for human pathogenic fusaria."

The researcherrs published their results in the December issue of the .

Fusarium may be best known for causing a variety of diseases in . In Pennsylvania, Fusarium diseases of grains and greenhouse crops are of particular concern. Fusarium species also produce mycotoxins in association with plants, causing a direct to animals and humans that eat the plants.

Some species of Fusarium also cause opportunistic and sometimes fatal infections in humans, typically entering the body through wounds or trauma, via and intravenous devices or by introduction of a biofilm to the eye. While relatively rare, Fusarium infections can be difficult to treat because of the organism's resistance to many antifungal drugs. Those most at risk are individuals with weak or compromised immune systems.

In one high-profile case, Fusarium was found to have caused a widely publicized 2005-06 outbreak of fungal keratitis -- infection of the cornea -- among contact-lens wearers.

"In the recent outbreaks of fungal keratitis in Southeast Asia and North America connected to contact-lens use, plumbing systems were the main environmental sources of the most frequent Fusarium species and sequence types associated with eye infections," Short said.

He explained that biofilms on plumbing surfaces are known to comprise a diverse spectrum of fungi and other microbes. "Based on its very high frequency, it is clear that Fusarium is a ubiquitous component of biofilm microbial communities in plumbing systems," he said. "The adaptations that make Fusarium biofilm growth possible also may facilitate infection of humans.

"For example, in the 2005-06 mycotic keratitis outbreak, it was hypothesized that improper use of a contact lens solution led to reduced efficacy of its antimicrobial properties, which allowed fusaria to establish biofilms on contact lens surfaces and in lens cases," he said.

"The also may play an important role in established infections in humans by protecting the fungus from drug treatments, since biofilm-phase fusaria tend to be more resistant to antifungal drugs than those growing in a fluid medium."

Of the 59 sequence types identified from sinks in this study, 32 had not been found in previous multilocus sequence typing studies of Fusarium. These novel types included members of four apparently new Fusarium species.

David Geiser, professor of plant pathology and a member of the research team, pointed out that the serious infections caused by fusaria are relatively uncommon and that these fungi may even play positive roles in plumbing systems. But he said the study provides the strongest evidence to date supporting an epidemiological link between human fusarioses and .

"Our apparently constant physical proximity to these belies their relative obscurity in terms of public awareness and understanding by the scientific community," said Geiser, who also is director of Penn State's Fusarium Research Center, which houses the world's largest collection of Fusarium.

"The species involved offer significant potential for studying host-microbe interactions, novel metabolic activities -- including the production of mycotoxins and antibiotics -- and the roles of microbes in indoor environments," he said.

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User comments : 3

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ironjustice
not rated yet Dec 21, 2011
This gives even more emphasis on the NEED for our public drinking water to be treated with food grade hydrogen peroxide as opposed to chlorine as it is now. Chlorine gas was used as a WMD in the first world war. Hydrogen peroxide is used to kill disease.
"hydrogen peroxide kills bacteria, viruses and fungi"
komone
not rated yet Dec 21, 2011
..and so a good dose of bleach down the drainholes every 3 months would be a good thing? If the researchers were clear about the result, then the solution would likely be as simple as that. Or did I misunderstand the "finding"?
Telekinetic
not rated yet Dec 21, 2011
This gives even more emphasis on the NEED for our public drinking water to be treated with food grade hydrogen peroxide as opposed to chlorine as it is now. Chlorine gas was used as a WMD in the first world war. Hydrogen peroxide is used to kill disease.
"hydrogen peroxide kills bacteria, viruses and fungi"

I'm against the sullying of our water supplies with anything at all, whether it's chlorine, flouride, or poisons released from fracking. I brush my teeth every morning with hydrogen peroxide, and I take 5,000 i.u.'s of Vit.D3 every day. Fungi are afraid of ME!

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