A fungus called Cryptococcus gattii can cause life-threatening infections, especially in people with compromised immune systems. One-third of AIDS-related deaths are thought to be caused by the fungus.
But though people in Southern California have been getting sick from C. gatti for years, nobody knew how.
Eucalyptus trees were a prime suspect, since they harbor the fungus in Australia. But even though eucalyptus trees grow like crazy in Southern California, the fungus hasn't been found on eucalyptus there.
A different form of the fungus has been making people sick in the Pacific Northwest, where it grows on Douglas fir trees. But there are no Doug firs in Los Angeles.
"We had a good idea that the fungus was going to be associated with trees," says Deborah Springer, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University who studies C. gatti. "We just didn't know what trees."
And she didn't have the time or money to find out.
But someone did: Elan Filer, a 7th grader who was looking for a science fair project. Her dad, Dr. Scott Filler, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles, ran into Dr. Joseph Heitman, Springer's advisor, at a conference, and told him about Elan. And Heitman told Springer.
Elan Filler and Springer connected on email and figured out a plan. soon Elan was making her way around greater Los Angeles, swabbing tree trunks and growing out the fungus in Petri dishes. None of the eucalyptus trees in the first batch she gathered tested positive for C. gattii, so she expanded her tests to include more types of trees.
Springer analyzed the genetic fingerprints of fungi in the samples that Elan sent to North Carolina.
Bingo! C. gattii from three trees, Canary Island pine, New Zealand pohutukawa and American sweet gum, matched almost exactly with C. gattii from infected patients. And the tree samples matched not just those from recent patients but from people who were sick 10 to 12 years ago. Thus this strain of C. gattii has been causing health problems in California for at least that long.
The results were published Thursday in PLOS Pathogens.
People living or traveling in California should be aware of the risk of cryptococcosis from C. gattii, Springer tells Shots, especially if they have HIV/AIDS, cancer, or other illnesses that can suppress the immune system. "When you travel and you're exposed to these reservoirs, you have the potential to be vulnerable to these infections."
Early treatment helps reduce the risk of death or disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Elan Filler is named as an author on the study; not a bad credit for someone who just turned 16. "I was very lucky that she was interested in doing this and that she did a fantastic job," Springer says of her junior colleague.
Indeed. This spring Filler, now a high school junior, won the Los Angeles County science fair for another project on pathogenic fungi, and attended the big daddy of science fairs, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
This week's puzzler comes courtesy Joe Easley, drummer for the D.C.-based rock group The Dismemberment Plan. It shouldn't be too hard for fans of the band to hear why he loves the fills and intros he selected from some of his favorite artists and songs.
The Dismemberment Plan is currently performing select shows for its latest album, and first in more than a decade, Uncanney Valley.
As always, if you know a fill (or intro) or drummer you'd love to see featured in this game, let us know in the comments section, or via Twitter @allsongs, #drumfillfriday. Good luck, careful listeners!
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes says the beheading of an American journalist by Islamic State militants this week is tantamount to a terrorist attack on the United States and that it comes as the al-Qaida-inspired extremist group has "gained capacity in the last several months."
In response to a question from a reporter at an afternoon briefing, Rhodes said the U.S. sees the killing of journalist James Foley "as an attack on America," adding that Washington is "moving heaven and earth to find and bring home American hostages" held captive in the region.
"We will be relentless in protecting Americans," he said.
The comments from Rhodes largely echoed remarks earlier in the day by Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, and strong words about the group known variously as Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL made Thursday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. Hagel said the Islamic State extremists go "beyond anything we've seen."
However, Kirby said U.S. airstrikes had "succeeded in blunting [Islamic State] momentum."
Asked whether the U.S. planned to expand its air campaign against the group in northern Iraq, possibly into Syria, where it has also been active, the admiral replied: "We don't telegraph our punches, but I think you can rest assured that the leadership team here in the Pentagon understands the threat."
Kirby defended a failed operation to rescue Foley and other hostages in Syria. He said that although U.S. forces participating in the rescue effort found no hostages at the target location, "we had an indication that they were once on that site.
"Attempts like this — which was risky under the best of circumstances — they take time," he said. "Intelligence is not perfect."
Jason Bentley, KCRW Music Director
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah self-released its debut album back in 2005 — when the Philly indie-rock group became one of the first big bands to break through on the strength of acclaim from music blogs — and still ventures into new sonic territory on its fourth studio album, the new Only Run.
From rock clubs to living-room shows, singer Alec Ounsworth is leading Clap Your Hands Say Yeah with a renewed sense of optimism. The band recently performed a batch of new songs during a return engagement on Morning Becomes Eclectic — including the single heard here, "Coming Down."
- "Coming Down"
Watch the entire Clap Your Hands Say Yeah session for Morning Becomes Eclectic at KCRW.com.