6. The Fungus Among Us | Sinem Beyhan
January 3, 2018 6 a.m.
Sinem Beyhan studies an infectious fungus that lives in soil. With no vaccine and very few available treatments, the disease can be deadly to humans. So Sinem is on a mission to hit the fungus where it hurts.
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Margot: San Diego is one of the largest scientific research hubs in the country. So, who are the intrepid scientists in search of discovery, pushing the frontiers of human knowledge? This is Rad Scientist, where the scientist becomes the subject. I'm your host, Margot Wohl.
[Johnny Cash song starts playing]
I’m sitting in the office of Sinem Beyhan at the J Craig Ventner Institute in La Jolla. She’s an assistant professor of infectious disease here. She wants me to listen to a Johnny Cash song on her computer. It’s a real feminist ballad about how his girlfriend has left him and now there’s no one to clean for him or make him food. (20 seconds) But there is also some science hidden in the lyrics too. Sinem sings along but she gets quiet when we get to the part she wants me to hear. Supposedly it has something to do about her research.
Johnny Cash: “Crow droppings on my window sill. Must have got histoplasmosis..”
Sinem: See! I study something famous.
Margot: Histoplasmosis. It’s a disease caused by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum and Sinem studies it. I guess it’s famous because Johnny Cash sang about it and it was a mystery disease in the TV Show “House”. To be honest though, I’d never heard of it. But, in some parts of America, it’s hard to ignore. Between 60 to 90 percent of people come in contact with the fungus in areas of the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. It’s also found in Africa and south America. And Scientists aren’t exactly sure why it hangs out in those areas. But they do know it likes to live around bird poo.
[bring back song “crow droppings on my window sill”]
Sinem: It’s found in soil and when it gets disrupted you inhale spores and get introduced to the fungus.
Margot: You may be tilling the soil, or cleaning up a chicken coop. As the soil moves around, spores from the fungus are released and as you breath, microscopic spores travel into your lungs. That’s how infection starts.
Sinem: And depending on your immune status or the infectious dose, you can get sick immediately or it can go latent and it can get activated later in your life stage.
Margot: That means that some people will never know that they were infected. They may experience brief flu like symptoms and brush it off as a common cold. Their immune system stops the spread of the infection. But for some people with weak immune systems, histoplasma can be fatal. There’s no vaccine, no great treatments. The best we have are antifungals.
Sinem: And antifungals are pretty toxic because they are in a sense similar to our cells.
Margot: Treatments that are toxic to fungi are pretty toxic for us too. The basic makeup of fungi cells and human cells – not that different after all. The animal kingdom parted ways with the fungi about a billion years ago, but it seems like nature doesn’t reinvent the wheel if it doesn’t have to.
Sinem: We need to come up with new drugs that can target the difference between these cells and our own cells.”
Margot: Sinem has one idea for how to target the fungi. And it has to do with histoplasma’s superpower. It can change its form. [play super power music] So, in the soil, histoplasma lives as a mold. That’s a bunch of fungal cells that act as one unit. Molds are really good at living in the soil. And they make spores which can be carried by air. But after they are Histoplasma is inhaled, it transforms. The temperature change from the cool air outside to our warm bodies triggers a change. Each mold spore morphs into a yeast – Yeast live on their own, they are really good at living in the human body, and they are baby making machines. They just make two of themselves whenever they please – it’s called asexual reproduction. The yeast reproduce faster than immune cells can kill them! So Sinem wants to hit the fungus where it hurts, in the asexual parts.
Sinem: Have it not reproduce in high density so that the immune system can take care of it.
Margot: Basically she wants to figure out a way to stop the Yeast from being so good at colonizing our bodies. Go from yeast Tokyo to yeast Idaho, you know? With that, hopefully even weak immune systems can battle the less populous yeast.
Margot: Sinem is one of a handful of scientists studying this disease. And sometimes sufferers reach out to her.
Sinem: Emails and phone calls from people who have had or whose loved ones have the disease and they don’t know what to do.
Margot: That personal connection pulls Sinem out of the minutia of the research and lets her zoom out for a second.
Sinem: When you actually get the calls its different. It makes it even more important for you to study it and it refocuses you to research.
And, with so few researchers studying this disease, Sinem’s research can have a big impact.
Sinem: Whatever I do would really contribute to the field of understanding the mechanism of this fungi.
Margot: Sometimes contributing to your field means training the next group of scientists. This is a huge part of a scientist’s job and it’s a role that Sinem takes very seriousy.
Sinem: That’s I think the most gratifying thing about being a mentor – to be able to train someone and them learning from you and them appreciating your efforts.
Margot: We actually run into one of her mentees, Saori, as we explore the campus.
Siri: She’s really like a great momma to the lab. It’s not only the personal, I would say she is a really good scientist. Like, whenever we are talking about science and we are not sure what to do or how to do trouble shooting, she is the one to ask.
Margot: That’s so nice. Did you plant her here?
Margot: Sinem is not just a lab momma, she’s a real momma too and that can be challenging to balance with an academic career.
Sinem: I have a lot of work to do, to establish my research program and go further in my field. I do feel more pressure in taking care of a child and trying to perform my job at its full potential.
But like many scientists, she can’t really think of doing anything else and so she makes it work.
Sinem: I think nothing should be barrier to do what you like to do.
Margot: To Sinem, science is a way of seeing the world that is universal no matter where you come from. It can connect her to family, who live in Turkey, to the people living in the Ohio River Valley Basin, and to the San Diego scientific community.
Sinem: I feel like with science it’s just a language that you can speak with many nations.
Speaking of science as a language, Sinem and I came up with a short poem so that you can remember what she studies. So here is the moment of Xenopus, “A Histoplasmosis Haiku.”
Fungi turns to yeast.
Infects your lungs like a beast.
Margot: It helps that histoplasmosis has five syllables! That’s it for the last episode of the first season of Rad Scientist and so I want to give a big shout out to the scientists who have participated, to everyone who has helped out on these episodes, and to you, the listeners. I’d love to get your feedback on things you liked and things you didn’t like or things you’d like to see in future episodes. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m unsure of details about a second season, so stay subscribed to get updates as they come along. Now to the credits.
This podcast is supported by the KPBS Explore Project, bringing local content to the radio. This episode was produced by me, Margot Wohl. Grant Fisher is our audio mix master and theme song composer. Shahla Farzan is script editor. Logo by Kyle Fisher. At KPBS, Emily Jankowski is technical director, Melanie Drogseth is program coordinator, Jill Linder is programming manager, Nate John is innovation specialist, and John Decker is director of programming. Subscribe to the podcast if you can and leave a review. And as always, Stay RAD!