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Sex Played A Vital Role For Evolution Of Infectious Diseases

Same-sex mating between two less harmful yeast strains might have spawned an outbreak of disease among otherwise healthy people and animals on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Howard Hughes Medical Institute geneticists at Duke University Medical Center have reported//. The fungus, Cryptococcus gattii, is normally restricted to the tropics and subtropics.

The evidence that sex played an important role in the pathogen's expansion may provide a useful model for the evolution of infectious diseases and parasites more generally, they said.

After extensive genetic analysis of fungal samples, the researchers suggest that mating between two less harmful fungal strains of the same sex or mating type produced the more virulent form. That strain has now taken hold and appears to be spreading perhaps driven by unique conditions, they said.

While the number of people infected so far does not approach that of many other infectious diseases, this fungus is invading the central nervous systems of people who have no other apparent risk factors except having taken a walk in the park on Vancouver Island, said Joseph Heitman, M.D., Ph.D. A year after infection, some of these people still have not fully recovered.

The fungus appears to have become entrenched is unlikely to disappear, and all indications are that it is spreading. Our findings suggest that sex played a role in the expanded geographic range for this pathogen.

The fungus, which lives in trees and soil, has also infected a variety of domestic and marine animals, including dogs, cats, llamas and porpoises.

The potentially life-threatening Cryptococcus neoformans invades the central nervous system to cause disease. It most commonly affects immune-compromised patients such as organ transplant recipients and cancer patients -- whose immune systems are crippled by immunosuppressive drugs or chemotherapy -- and people with HIV/AIDS. In contrast, C. gattii infects indi
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