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Secret Life of the Fungus: Yes, It Does Have Sex

February 6, 1996

How can you tell if a fungus is having sex?

Until now, the answer to this rather arcane scientific riddle has been: not very easily.

Now a team of researchers, borrowing techniques from diverse fields to study the fungus that each year gives thousands of people valley fever, say they have found some straightforward ways to answer the question. They have discovered that the fungus, thought for over a century to be chastely asexual, is in fact having sex, and quite a bit of it.

Knowing how a species reproduces can alter everything from how a researcher goes about developing a vaccine against it to what sorts of methods can be used to answer even the most basic questions about its biology. Yet in spite of the importance of knowing how both animal and plant pathogens reproduce, many harmful fungi and protozoans, like the valley fever fungus, have simply been assumed to be asexual because scientists have never observed them reproducing sexually.

Scientists say the techniques used to figure out indirectly the cryptic sex of Coccidioides immitis, the valley fever fungus, could be used to determine which of the many poorly known microbial species assumed to be asexual really are. The researchers reported their results in the Jan. 23 issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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