The Attack Of The Tornado Fungus

By Nolan Moore on Monday, February 1, 2016
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“I can’t tell you what happened then. I can’t describe it. I can’t bear to think about it. Children all around me were cut and bleeding. They cried and screamed. It was something awful. I had to close my eyes.” —Student describing a tornado in 1925

In A Nutshell

Apophysomyces trapeziformis is a fungus that’s usually harmless where humans are concerned. But throw a massive tornado into the mix, and things get really nasty, really fast. In May 2011, a tornado “injected” several Missourians with the normally benign fungus, leaving them with some truly horrific results.

The Whole Bushel

On May 22, 2011, a massive tornado barreled through Joplin, Missouri. An EF-5, this monster was nearly a mile wide and spinning at approximately 320 kilometers per hour (200 mph). After it touched down, the twister ravaged the Missouri landscape for 35 kilometers (22 mi), killing over 150 people and destroying thousands of buildings along the way.

According to a 2014 list released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it was the seventh deadliest tornado in US history.

But in addition to all that devastation, this tornado left behind another unwelcome surprise straight out of an apocalyptic sci-fi novel or a standalone episode of The X-Files. When the tornado ripped through Joplin, it left behind a grotesque life-form that quickly started colonizing inside human hosts.

Scientists theorize that when the tornado landed outside Joplin, it picked up several strains of a fungus called Apophysomyces trapeziformis. (Or perhaps, it sucked up these strains as it traveled through the town, spitting them back out at high speeds.)

This particular type of fungus is what’s called a zygomycete, which are usually pretty harmless to humans. They usually feed on plants, although some variations go after insects.

Most of the time, this fungus likes to hang out in the dirt or rotten wood. But when the 2011 twister came along, A. trapeziformis was forcibly evicted from its nice, dark home.

Basically, the tornado “injected” 13 people with this fungus, and then things got really nasty. The organism would enter through a wound and make its way into a victim’s blood vessels in order to get hold of red and white blood cells.

Just to help you get the picture, scientists say that A. trapeziformis grows incredibly quickly. If you put just one spore in a petri dish, the fungal filaments will start spilling over the sides of the dish in a matter of hours.

Now, imagine that happening inside your body. As you might expect, the fungus caused deadly clots inside blood vessels, which in turn caused the infected wound to grow black and die.

Even worse, many of these wounds actually started sprouting fuzzy white mold.

This kind of infection is known as necrotizing cutaneous mucormycosis, and scientists did their best to combat the fungus with antibiotics and sharp blades. Doctors were forced to slice away the furry, dead flesh, and many of the patients had to undergo several surgeries because the fungus is pretty effective at burrowing into human flesh.

One patient was so infected that doctors had to take out part of his chest and replace the infected bone with a metal rib cage.

According to Scientific American, this isn’t the first time a disaster has resulted in such an infection. A. trapeziformis showed up after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as well as a 1985 Colombian volcanic eruption.

As for the Joplin victims, researchers determined many of them lived in the most devastated areas, and none of them had access to a safe zone such as a storm shelter. Tragically, the death rate for this infection is incredibly fatal, sometimes up to 50 percent, and 5 of the 13 Missourians succumbed to the fungus. It’s a truly horrible twist of fate when you escape one of the most powerful forces of nature only to be brought down by a spore.

Show Me The Proof

NBC News: Post-tornado peril: Victims could face deadly fungal infections
Scientific American: Soil-Dwelling Fungus Rode Joplin Tornado to Unexpected Human Home
CNN: The 10 deadliest U.S. tornadoes on record