Sunday, February 23, 2014

Feet Prime Target For Fungus

If you've read that title and are thinking, "Eww!", yes, you're right to think that's a gross statement. 
At least 80 different types of fungi call our heels home, along with 60 between the toes, and 40 on the toenail. More than 100 different fungi reside on our feet, more than any other place on our body, according to a study published in the journal Nature. 
But as gross as it sounds, some of that fungi has a specific and positive effect, said study leader Julie Segre, a geneticist at the National Humane Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. 
"One of the major functions of healthy fungi is to prevent pathogenic fungi from adhering to our skin," where they can cause athlete's foot, plantar warts, and stubborn toenail infections. "There is something about toenails that fungi just love."
Segre is one of the foremost researchers of the human microbe, a collection of microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi, and mite that live on our bodies. Their work is showing us that a thriving microbe is essential to a healthy body, by helping us digest our food, fight disease, and generally keep everything in good working order. In other words, there are good germs as well as bad germs and we need those good germs to survive. 
Previously studies had only dealt with genetic analysis of bacteria that populates the skin, but this time they focused solely on fungi.
Dr. Heidi H. Kong, a dermatologist at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda used 10 healthy participants for the study. She swabbed 13 regions of their bodies, including the scalp, forehead, chest, forearms, nostrils, heel, and the skin between the toes, as well as clipped their toenails. The samples were then dunked in a solution which stripped the fungi and bacteria. This was handed off to Segre. 
Across the board, the heels and toes had the most variety of fungi. The most common were Saccharomyces, a yeast that produces beer and bread, Penicillium, which is used to make penicillin, and Malassezia, which causes dandruff.
The findings were remarkable because they discovered that our feet are like fungi hotels- when one fungus moves in, another moves out. Six of the 10 volunteers returned after one to three months for further swabbing, and researchers found that just 30% to 40% of the fungi on the feet had remained the same.
Segre has no specific answer as to why the fungi on our feet changes so much, but she believes that the temperature of our feet may have something to do with it. Our core temperature stays fairly constant, but the temperature of our feet can change dramatically. Some fungi may prefer the cold, while some may prefer the heat. And since our feet are so close to the ground, they are exposed to a wider variety than our forehead or chest.
"People are fastidious about washing everything off their hands, but people don't specifically wash their feet," Segre added. "For many people, standing in the shower seems good enough."
Icky. Anyone else feel like they need to take a shower now?
Segre's research may prove crucial in how we treat fungal infections, like athlete's foot, in the future. Most fungal infections are treated with antifungal medication that attacks all fungus, good and bad. With this knowledge, medications can be created to directly target the bad fungus.
Reference: LA Times
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