Aspergillus Latus found in a hospital environment for the first time

Aspergillus latus, a species of fungus previously found only in soil or plants, has been found for the first time in a hospital environment by an international group of researchers.

The group sequenced its genome and discovered that it is actually a hybrid and is up to three times more drug-resistant than the two species from which it derives.

An article on the study is published in Current Biology and coauthored by researchers from Brazil, the United States, Portugal and Belgium. The research was supported by São Paulo Research Foundation, FAPESP.

Aspergillosis is a lung disease caused by fungi of this genus, especially A. fumigatus, which is widely found in plants and soil. All humans regularly inhale spores of Aspergillus, which do not usually cause symptoms in healthy subjects. In patients with weak immune systems, however, the mold can cause pneumonia, build up fungal balls (aspergillomas) in the lungs, and spread to become invasive pulmonary aspergillosis, the most severe form of the disease. A. fumigatus is the most frequent cause of aspergillosis, but other species also cause the condition, including A. flavus, A. niger, A. nidulans and A. terreus.

"In about 90% of cases, infection by Aspergillus is caused by A. fumigatus, but in some human genetic diseases, A. nidulans is a more frequent cause. We therefore started assembling clinical material from various parts of the world to see how often this species occurred in a hospital environment. To our surprise, six out of ten samples contained a fungus that had never before been found to infect people," said Gustavo Henrique Goldman , a professor in the University of São Paulo's Ribeirão Preto School of Pharmaceutical Sciences (FCFRP-USP) in Brazil and coprincipal investigator for the study with Antonis Rokas, a professor at Vanderbilt University in the United States.

Genetic sequencing also revealed that A. latus is a hybrid of two relatively distantly related species and contains complete copies of the DNA of both parental species. Tests performed by other groups have already shown that A. latus can be up to three times more resistant to anti-fungal drugs than its parental species, A. spinulosporus and an unknown relative of A. quadrilineatus. It also more effectively combats human immune cells.

"The fungus gains significant advantages from being a hybrid," Goldman said. "Accurate identification of the species that causes the infection is important in order to decide on the best treatment and avoid resistance to existing drugs."

However, he added, few Brazilian hospitals currently have the resources to perform genetic sequencing in order to identify the fungi that contaminate patients with greater than genus-level precision. Identification is typically achieved by morphological analysis under a microscope, which leaves room for misdiagnosis. The samples of A. latus used in the study, for example, had previously been labeled as A. nidulans by this method.

Fungi and COVID-19

The presence of fungi in hospital environments is a well-known factor in disease aggravation and even death. In collaboration with researchers in Germany, Goldman and his group are now assembling samples of fungi present in the lungs of COVID-19 patients with the aim of investigating how these organisms can aggravate their condition as a basis for developing strategies to avoid and combat infections.

"Several COVID-19 patients have died owing to concomitant infection by Aspergillus," Goldman said. "We currently have four strains that were isolated from patients who died of COVID-19 in Europe and will sequence their genomes to identify the species and see if they're favored by the disease."