Professor Meghan Duffy, an expert in infectious diseases who recently lectured at Utah State University, was interested in how food webs in lakes are affected by pathogens, not drug discovery. She set up an experiment to see how water fleas – a small crustacean that are also important food for young fish – grow and reproduce under different diets with different pathogen exposures.
“We took our small little shrimp-like creatures, these water fleas, and we put them individually in beakers filled with water. We gave them different foods, and then we exposed them to parasites or not. We looked at whether they became infected, and if they became infected how well the parasite grew within them,” Duffy said. “In the end we found that these different species of algae that they might consume can really strongly influence whether they get infected by the fungal parasite. Three of the species completely prevented infections by this fungal parasite.”
To Duffy and her team, this was big news. When water fleas ate Anabaena, Microcystis, and Chlorella algae, they didn’t get sick. Anabaena and Microcystis produce toxins that are deadly to humans, but Chlorella is commonly sold as a health food. Her team is now taking the next step of testing Chlorella for use as an anti-fungal medication in humans.
“Fungal diseases are really important in humans. We tend to think of them as a nuisance thing but fungal diseases can have a major impact on people. 1.5 million people die each year from fungal diseases and we have very few anti-fungal medications. We really, really need more,” Duffy said.
Although research without application to humans, also known as basic research, continues to face funding challenges, Duffy asserts it is crucial.
“One of the values of basic research is often when we’re studying something because we’re interested in it we end up finding something that has unanticipated benefit to humans. To me this research really highlights this,” Duffy said.