Increased Production of Pathogenic, Airborne Fungal Spores upon Exposure of a Soil Mycobiota to Chlorinated Aromatic Hydrocarbon Pollutants

Celso Martins, Daryna Piontkivska, Dalila Mil-Homens, Paula Guedes, João M.P. Jorge, João Brinco, Cátia Bárria, Ariana C.F. Santos, Ricardo Barras, Cecília Arraiano, Arsénio Fialho, Gustavo H. Goldman, Cristina Silva Pereira

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Organic pollutants are omnipresent and can penetrate all environmental niches. We evaluated the hypothesis that short-term (acute) exposure to aromatic hydrocarbon pollutants could increase the potential for fungal virulence. Specifically, we analyzed whether pentachlorophenol and triclosan pollution results in the production of airborne fungal spores with greater virulence than those derived from an unpolluted (Control) condition. Each pollutant altered the composition of the community of airborne spores compared to the control, favoring an increase in strains with in vivo infection capacity (the wax moth Galleria mellonella was used as an infection model). Fungi subsisting inside larvae at 72 h postinjection with airborne spore inocula collected in polluted and unpolluted conditions exhibited comparable diversity (mainly within Aspergillus fumigatus). Several virulent Aspergillus strains were isolated from larvae infected with the airborne spores produced in a polluted environment. Meanwhile, strains isolated from larvae injected with spores from the control, including one A. fumigatus strain, showed no virulence. Potential pathogenicity increased when two Aspergillus virulent strains were assembled, suggesting the existence of synergisms that impact pathogenicity. None of the observed taxonomic or functional traits could separate the virulent from the avirulent strains. Our study emphasizes pollution stress as a possible driver of phenotypic adaptations that increase Aspergillus pathogenicity, as well as the need to better understand the interplay between pollution and fungal virulence. IMPORTANCE Fungi colonizing soil and organic pollutants often meet. The consequences of this encounter constitute an outstanding question. We scrutinized the potential for virulence of airborne fungal spores produced under unpolluted and polluted scenarios. The airborne spores showed increased diversity of strains with higher infection capacity in Galleria mellonella whenever pollution is present. Inside the larvae injected with either airborne spore community, the surviving fungi demonstrated a similar diversity, mainly within Aspergillus fumigatus. However, the isolated Aspergillus strains greatly differ since virulence was only observed for those associated with a polluted environment. The interplay between pollution and fungal virulence still hides many unresolved questions, but the encounter is costly: pollution stress promotes phenotypic adaptations that may increase Aspergillus pathogenicity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e0066723
JournalMicrobiology Spectrum
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2023


  • Aspergillus fumigatus
  • fungal virulence
  • Galleria mellonella infection model
  • organic pollution
  • soil mycobiota


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