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A prescient warning about the mysterious and deadly world of fungi—and how to avert further loss across species, including our own.
Fungi are everywhere. Most are harmless; some are helpful. A few are killers. Collectively, infectious fungi are the most devastating agents of disease on earth, and a fungus that can persist in the environment without its host is here to stay. In Blight, Emily Monosson documents how trade, travel, and a changing climate are making us all more vulnerable to invasion. Populations of bats, frogs, and salamanders face extinction. In the Northwest, America’s beloved national parks are covered with the spindly corpses of whitebark pines. Food crops are under siege, threatening our coffee, bananas, and wheat—and, more broadly, our global food security. Candida auris, drug-resistant and resilient, infects hospital patients and those with weakened immune systems. Coccidioides, which lives in drier dusty regions, may cause infection in apparently healthy people. The horrors go on.
Yet prevention is not impossible. Tracing the history of fungal spread and the most recent discoveries in the field, Monosson meets scientists who are working tirelessly to protect species under threat, and whose innovative approaches to fungal invasion have the potential to save human lives. Delving into case studies at once fascinating, sobering, and hopeful, Blight serves as a wake-up call, a reminder of the delicate interconnectedness of the natural world, and a lesson in seeing life on our planet with renewed humility and awe.
"Infectious fungi and fungus-like pathogens are the most devastating disease agents on the planet," contends Monosson (Natural Defense), a science writer and former toxicologist, in this startling warning. She details the ecological havoc wreaked by fungi, describing how they fueled the Irish potato famine in the 19th century, drove the American chestnut tree to near extinction in the early 20th century, and decimated the North American bat population in the 2010s. The author paints a frightening picture of what might come next: a virulent strain of fungus similar to the one that ravaged East Africa's wheat plants in 1998 could adapt to overcome the genetic advantages of disease-resistant crops, or there could be a fungal disease outbreak among humans, as there was when cases of the antifungal-resistant yeast pathogen C. auris, which has a 30%–60% mortality rate, popped up around the world in 2015. The factors driving such crises, Monosson argues, include agricultural practices that reduce genetic diversity in crops and climate change (she notes some scientists believe that the adaptations that C. auris developed to survive in warmer environs also enabled it to tolerate the human body). Monosson keeps the discussions of fungi biology accessible, and the battery of case studies of fungal outbreaks underscores the urgency of the threat. This wake-up call should not go unheeded.