More than just Mushrooms

22 March 2022

Mycology, the scientific study of fungi, plays a very important role in identifying and managing fungal diseases in humans and animals. Dr Sarah Kidd, Head of the National Mycology Reference Centre within SA Pathology, explains that “Many people think of mycology as being about identifying mushrooms, which is true, but fungi are also microscopic organisms that can cause life-threatening disease in humans and animals. Most people don’t realise that fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants, and that can make it difficult to treat fungal infections.”

The National Mycology Reference Centre performs all of the public mycology diagnostic work for South Australia and provides a referral service for other laboratories around Australia, that may require complex fungal testing. The two arms of the lab work cohesively to identify both yeast- and mould-like fungi that cause disease and determine which antifungal drugs can be used to treat them.

Sarah says that “yeasts are a type of fungus that cause a lot of bloodstream infections, but also thrush type infections as well. We can identify yeasts quite easily and quickly using a mass spectrometry technique, which is the same method used to identify bacteria.”

“Moulds cause fairly innocuous infections of the skin and nails, but also severe disease of the lungs and other organs in the body, and they are difficult to identify. We look at their morphology under the microscope and examine characteristics such as the size, shape and colour of their spores, and how the spores are formed, as they all look a bit different.”

Once a clinical sample is received, it is placed on different media and at different temperatures to grow, and then a microscopic preparation is made. Sarah says “this can take two or three days from arriving in the lab to be completed, or it can be several weeks. Some fungi grow quickly, and others quite slowly, and they may not want to produce those recognisable characteristics for us to look at. They are all individuals.”

Identifying fungi takes skill, as Sarah explains “It can take more than 10 years of working in the lab to feel confident about identifying a wide range of fungal species. There have been some fantastic mycologists in Australia, but they have retired, or are close to retiring.  And as it's a skill that takes so long to learn, there are less and less skilled mycologists around, and that’s why our reference service is so important.”

The National Mycology Reference Centre is actively involved in mycology training, supporting a new cohort of medical technologists and scientists, as well as trainee doctors.

Launched late last year was the Medical Fungi app, in partnership with Pfizer, and designed for use by clinicians. The idea for the app emerged from the continual demand of clinicians requiring information on which antifungal drugs were more likely to be effective against a particular fungal species, to be able to start treating the patient before those test results become available. Based on years of collated data and the textbook Descriptions of Medical Fungi, the app allows any clinician to quickly search for fungi profiles from anywhere, even from the patient’s bedside, and bring up charts that help them decide which antifungal drug to administer.

To learn more about the National Mycology Reference Centre and see a range of education materials visit Mycology Online.

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