In her latest book, "Blight: Fungi and the Coming Pandemic," published July 2023, Emily Monosson walks readers through the threat of crops — like bananas and coffee — how drug-resistant fungi are circling us, and what that means for the future. She dives into how we can work towards saving our species, preventing a collapse in food security and global infection.
Monosson worked as a toxicologist for the first part of her career and now focuses on publishing writing, with "Blight" following a string of books and articles highlighting solutions for the natural world.
Healthnews talked to Monosson about her new book and how we are contributing to a very real, very looming "Last of Us" fungal catastrophe.
When did you begin researching your book, "Blight," and what inspired you to write it?
Summer of 2019. I had been thinking about it for a while, really ever since the early 2000s when a fungus-like disease emerged in the northeast one August and destroyed tomato crops (including the few ripening tomatoes in my yard – which really is how I became aware of it). While writing a blog about the devastation caused by this so-called "late blight," I learned that the same organism destroyed the potato crops over a century ago, causing, in part, the Great Famine in Ireland. A few years later, several scientists published a paper in the journal Nature, raising awareness about just how destructive fungi and fungi-like pathogens can be across species.
From crop plants to forests, wildlife to humans. Around the same time, I also witnessed the disappearance of bats in our neighborhood and later learned that bats, too, were being killed off by a fungus. I thought to write a book at that time — but it was too depressing. Then, in 2016 the CDC reported about a newly emergent fungal pathogen in humans, Candida auris. It seemed maybe it was time to write that book.
Why is it important for readers, and the general public, to learn about fungal infections and how they change the world?
I think it is important for readers to learn about our role in enabling deadly fungal pathogens because, in large part, we contributed to these outbreaks in one way or another. Many fungi are not particularly deadly and co-exist with their host, whether plants or wild animals, or even us. Even where fungi might infect an animal or a plant as a pathogen, it may not be deadly if the two have evolved a relationship over time. But when we take things — plants and animals and ourselves — and move them all around, we provide the microbes living on or in those plants, including fungi, with an opportunity to travel far and wide.
And if they find a new host — a chestnut tree, or a bat or frog to infect — and if that tree or bat or frog has never seen that fungus before and has no defenses, the combination of new pathogen and susceptible host can be catastrophic. We saw that sort of scenario too, during the COVID-19 outbreak, a novel pathogen that traveled the world.
In agriculture we compound the issue by growing monocrops — large crops with little or no genetic diversity a practice that one scientist has described as a "banquet" for fungi.
It’s obvious why we should care about our crops (and major staple crops like wheat, rice and bananas are at risk of infection by some nasty fungal pathogens.) But why should the general public care if little brown bats or American chestnut trees disappear?
When these species disappear, we lose important predators or pollinators or, in the case of the chestnut — a major food for wildlife and an important source of food, lumber, and really, joy for people. The forest lost a key member of its ecosystem. The consequences of these losses may not be so obvious to us — but they can cause upstream or downstream impacts we can’t always measure: less food, more bothersome insects, and subtle changes that we don’t yet understand.
Why do we see increased rates of fungal infections? How are climate change and fungi intertwined?
The increased rates of infections, particularly in trees and animals in our moving plants and animals around the world, provide fungi with an opportunity to infect a new host. But there is also a role for climate — particularly when it comes to human infection. There are studies showing that most fungi prefer temperatures much cooler than our human bodies (or other mammalian bodies.) Not all, but most. As the environment changes — warmer, wetter, whatever — scientists think there is a good chance that fungi living in those environments may evolve to better tolerate those conditions. If a species evolves to the point that it isn’t bothered by our warm bodies — and if we happen to be a suitable host — then we may be looking at a new fungal pathogen in humans.
C. auris is a hot topic nowadays, and we've covered it at Healthnews as well. Reading about it has helped me understand more about fungal infections and how they can threaten ecosystems and our future. It's sort of a beginner 101 of fungi for some people who either haven't taken it seriously in the past or just haven't paid attention. Do you hope your book offers more insight into this area? Or what do you hope readers take away from reading "Blight"?
I think paying attention would be a first step. We are aware of bacteria and viruses, and now it’s a good time to be aware of fungal pathogens and our role in moving them around through plants, trade, and travel. With these large environmental problems, it is hard to find solutions that we as individuals can do (other than pay attention to those signs that ask us not to transport foods or plants, or animals from one place to another.)
In this case, I think by being more aware, we can support the work of conservation groups trying to rein in the movement of pathogens or policies that work to protect plants and animals, and even in consumer choices — we can embrace a wider diversity of foods so that in some small way growers might be encouraged to move away from monocrops.