As scientists we have to sell our work. We need to make our ideas as compelling and WOW!!! as possible to obtain funding, get published in the S/N/C glamour journals, and justify ourselves to the greater community and our peers. But we should never jump the shark.
A recent paper from Fungal Biology proceeds to do just that (subscription required). The press glommed onto to this paper with such objective titles as "'My Dishwasher Is Trying to Kill Me': New Research Finds Harmful Fungal Pathogens Living in Dishwasher Seals" and let's not overlook "My dishwasher is trying to kill me! Deadly bacteria found in household appliances" (Really!?! bacteria!?! Really!?!) A reality based article can be found at MinnPost, for which I provided some thoughts.
Now maybe this is the fault of the media, but maybe not. Actually it's not. Well it's both. As far as the media simply reporting what they were told, they are not at fault. As far as the media actually doing their damn job and not simply being a mouthpiece, they are at fault.
The actual title of the paper is "Dishwashers – A man-made ecological niche accommodating human opportunistic fungal pathogens." That seems fairly benign, although the authors are already introducing the "OMG! We're all going to die!!!" meme by focusing on human opportunistic fungal pathogens. (As an aside, I've always been torn by the phrase fungal pathogen. Is it a pathogen that's a fungus or a pathogen of fungi?)
|Fungi live here|
OK, so how is this related to human health, remember the article's title? Well, E. dermatitidis has been associated with disease in humans, although it is extremely rare. The word 'opportunistic' in the article's title means something. In the case of E. dermatitidis it means there is something wrong with your immune system. Several studies demonstrate that E. dermatitidis colonizes the lungs of Cystic Fibrosis (CF) patients. However, finding something there does not mean that something is causing a problem. Indeed, the very first sentence of the most recent paper on E. dermatitidis and CF reads "The black-pigmented fungus Exophiala dermatitidis is considered to be a harmless colonizer of the airways of cystic fibrosis (CF) patients." (emphasis mine) Ooohhh, that's some scary shit.
Hopefully, I've noted how the media went off the rails here. The question now is why? Did they make this hype up? Let's see if the authors of the paper in question have anything to say on the topic. The following quotes are directly from the paper.
"The ability of opportunistic fungi to survive near-boiling temperatures needs special attention." Yeah, yeah, we all think our research needs special attention, but why do these authors think this? Is it because this potentially deadly fungus is coming to get us?
"Roughly one-third of sampled dishwashers was infested mostly with one of the two Exophiala species." Anyone else think the word 'infested' was used primarily to elicit an emotional response?
"The presence of such fungi in dishwashers increases the risk of infection through tableware or otherwise." Well that's pretty damned definitive! Im sure there's a reference with data backing that statement up. What? There's not?!? Well, we all know E. dermatitidis infections have increased markedly since the 1970s when dishwashers became common in US households, wait, we don't know that? How about E. dermatitidis infection rates correlate with number of dshwashers/capita, we don't know that either? Hmm, well are E. dermatitidis infection rates higher in employees how spend their days working with dishwashers than others, we don't know that either? Fine! Let's consider this latter sentence Fonzi's shark.
You know what jerks my chain the most? This is interesting work. The authors have looked in a previously ignored niche and found some interesting bugs. They provide physiological evidence for why these organisms, and not other organisms, are there. This work provides a way to identify natural niches for E. dermatitidis, look for hot high pH high salt locales. This work also highlights how very little we actually know about the microbial world in which we live. There's no reason to pump up the volume with fear (don't believe there was fear, read the comments following the Daily Mail article).
P. Zalara, M. Novak, G.S. de Hoog, & N. Gunde-Cimerman (2011). Dishwashers – A man-made ecological niche accommodating human opportunistic fungal pathogens Fungal Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.funbio.2011.04.007