On March 27, 1964, Alaska’s Prince William Sound region was hit by a 9.2-magnitude earthquake, the strongest one ever recorded in North America. Around 139 people died, largely due to the series of tsunamis that swelled along the continent’s west coast in the wake of the seismic event. Now, a study published in mBio argues that the Great Alaska Earthquake also unleashed a deadly fungus along the Pacific Northwest Coast, with lasting implications for both humans and the natural environment.
Since 1999, the region has been dealing with an ongoing outbreak of Cryptococcus gattii, a microscopic, yeast-like fungus that can cause infections if it is inhaled. Most people who are exposed to C. gattii do not get sick, but those who do become ill are at risk of pneumonia, skin infections, meningitis and nodules in the lungs and brain. In rare instances, the fungus can be fatal.
More than 300 C. gattii cases have been reported in Canada and the United States, and the fungus does not only impact humans; it has been found in animals, too. The source of these infections seems to be the C. gattii that has been discovered lurking in the soil, trees and shore waters of the Pacific Northwest Coast. But curiously, nearly all of the fungal subtypes isolated from sick patients resemble subtypes typically seen in Brazil and other parts of South America.