UMKC and Broad Institute researchers sequence complete genome of Athlete’s Foot fungus

Theodore White

Theodore White, PhD

Researchers at the UMKC School of Biological Sciences, working with investigators at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., have sequenced the complete genomes for five separate fungi in the dermatophyte group, which cause a variety of fungal infections, including athlete’s foot.

The work at UMKC was performed in the lab of Theodore White, Ph.D., Interim Dean and Marion Merrell Dow Professor of Biological Sciences. Dr. White worked closely with Diego Martinez, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate, and Christina Cuomo, Ph.D., Group Leader of the Fungal Genome Sequencing and Analysis Group in the Genome Sequencing and Analysis Program at the Broad Institute. The work is published in the Sept. 4 issue of mBio, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology. Click here for the article.

While fungal infections such as athlete’s foot may seem inconsequential, the research uncovered important information about how fungi interact with the human immune system, paving the way for eventual new therapies for treating far more serious diseases.

“These fungi are responsible for some of the most common fungal infections in the world, such as athlete’s foot, jock itch, ringworm and various infections of the nails and scalp,” Dr. White said. “In the U.S. and other developed countries, the most common of these infections is athlete’s foot, while in developing countries, scalp and body infections are more common.”

In analyzing the genome sequences of these fungi, Dr. Martinez and his colleagues discovered important new information on the mechanisms behind the infections and how some fungi are seemingly able to “hide” from the human body’s immune system.

“One of the most significant things we discovered is that there is a unique relationship between the fungus and the body’s immune system, which doesn’t appear to be able to eliminate the fungus,” Dr. White said. “We found a set of molecules that may actually serve to mask the fungal disease from our immune system.”

The genomic information produced by the investigators at UMKC and the Broad Institute may hold the keys to discovering the mechanisms that drive that “masking” effect, Dr. White added, paving the way for researchers to study methods for “unmasking” the disease, thus enabling the immune system to attack it.

“We have also been able to identify some unique toxins, and enzymes responsible for helping the fungus grow on the skin, all of which could be used in drug and vaccine development.” Dr. White said. “Our genome sequences will provide a strong foundation for future work in understanding how dermatophytes interact with the human body and cause disease.”

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