Potentially life-threatening fungi are currently thriving in a central Cape Town park.

The cryptococcal fungi, which causes meningitis, does not pose a risk in people who don’t suffer from HIV/Aids, according to the microbiologist who discovered them. Cryptococcal meningitis is the leading cause of death in HIV/Aids patients in sub-Saharan Africa after tuberculosis. One will become infected when inhaling the airborne microscopic spores produced by pathogenic cryptococci that grows on decaying wood.

South Africa launched the world’s largest national screening programme to detect cryptococcal meningitis in HIV patients last year. Stellenbosch University PhD student Jo-Marie Vreulink said the programme offered “excellent” protection from the disease.

Vreulink found numerous colonies of cryptococcus in samples collected from a public park in the centre of Cape Town. Her supervisor, Professor Alf Botha, had been searching for it in South Africa since 2003.

“It was late on a Friday afternoon and I was working alone. I decided to check on the petri dishes that I prepared from the samples collected in Cape Town,” said Vreunlink.

The PhD’s student’s findings have been published in the journal Fungal Ecology.

“On most of the dishes brown colonies – typical of these cryptococcal pathogens – were growing. This was such a rare occasion that I started working immediately to transfer the colonies to new petri dishes for identification. I was scared to death that the colonies will be overgrown by other microorganisms if I left it over the weekend.”

This discovery in Cape Town and another in the Northen Cape are the first spots in South Africa where cryptococcal fungi has been found in such large numbers on trees.

Vreulink said evidence from other countries suggests the fungi were found in areas with a combination of pigeons, old trees and large amounts of people. She says her research efforts have focused on understanding the biology and ecology of the single-celled yeasts that make up the colonies.

“For now, I’m focusing on the ecology of these yeasts. I want to understand the population dynamics, the genetics and how it interacts with their environment,” she said.

“If we can understand how they survive out there, we can use this knowledge to better predict how they can survive in their human host.”

Photography Jo-Marie Vreulink

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