Tornadoes have always been a bit of an abstract thing for me, bringing to mind films like the Wizard of Oz and Twister. So I was surprised when one blasted through Auckland about 10 days ago killing three people who were crushed by falling concrete on a building site.
Then I saw a paper in my favourite journal PLOS One about some people who died when a catastrophic tornado with wind speeds of over 200 miles per hour hit the city of Joplin in Missouri in May 2011. According to Wikipedia, it was the deadliest American tornado in 65 years, killing 160 people.
Five of those people dies from an extremely rare infection called zygomycosis caused by the ‘flesh eating’ fungus, Apophysomyces. Apophysomyces species live in the soil and decaying vegetation and detritus. The authors describe the patients as having “traumatic inoculation of infective spores”. That is, spores introduced into their bodies through lacerations from contaminated objects literally blown into them by the strong winds. Nasty. The paper describes the sequencing of the genomes of the fungi isolated from 13 patients and finds they aren’t clonal which is consistent with multiple distinct fungal populations from soil and other organic matter being aerosolised by the tornado.
The infection does sound horrendous. Apparently the fungal hyphae rapidly grow, sealing off capillaries and shutting off the blood supply, leaving tissue to rot. Dead, damaged or infected tissues have to be surgically removed. According to the press release, the lead author David Engelthaler said one victim who suffered a deep wound to the upper right chest required a new titanium rib cage after the fungus rapidly destroyed skin and bones. Yikes!
Etienne KA, Gillece J, Hilsabeck R, Schupp JM, Colman R, et al. (2012) Whole Genome Sequence Typing to Investigate the Apophysomyces Outbreak following a Tornado in Joplin, Missouri, 2011. PLoS ONE 7(11): e49989. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049989