Skin Fungus Study: Is Your Body Teeming With Microorganisms?

By Philip Ross on May 23, 2013 10:44 AM EDT

Fungus study
A skin fungus study says your skin is crawling with tiny organisms. U.S. scientists have mapped the fungal activity of the human body and found that more than 80 fungal types live on our skin, many of them on our feet. (Photo: Reuters)

A skin fungus study, which charted the diverse microscopic life living on the human body, found more than 80 fungal types on the surface of our skin. It's true: Your body is teeming with fungal activity like a giant playground for tiny organisms.

Scientists at National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Cancer Institute, both branches of the National Institute of Health, or NIH, wanted to better understand the fungal and bacterial populations on the human body. The skin fungus study, which appears in the May 22 issue of Nature, could lead to improved treatments for skin diseases, even cancer.

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"Human skin surfaces are complex ecosystems for microorganisms, including fungi, bacteria and viruses, which are known collectively as the skin microbiome," the study reports. "Although fungal infections of the skin affect about 29 million people in the United States, fungi can be slow and hard to grow in laboratories, complicating diagnosis and treatment of even the most common fungal skin conditions, such as toenail infections."

The scientists collected samples from 14 areas of the body from 10 presumably healthy adults. They found that the head and torso contain a single type of fungus, called Malassezia. The hands, which are home to a myriad of bacteria, have relatively few kinds of fungi. The feet, however, contain a huge diversity of fungal activity. Researchers found Aspergillus, Cryptococcus, Rhodotorula and Epicoccum fungi in that area of the epidermis.

According to the NIH, the area of the feet with the most microorganism activity is the heel, with 80 different types of bacteria thriving there. They also found about 60 types of fungus in the toenails and 40 types from the webs of the toes.

"Sites with moderate fungal diversity are inside the bend of the arm, inside of the forearm and palm, with each location supporting 18 to 32 genera of fungi," researchers reported. "Surprisingly, head and trunk body sites -- including the back, back of the neck, inside the ears, behind the ears, and between the eyebrows -- have far fewer fungi types, with just two to 10 genera each."

In the past, researchers figured out that bacterial diversity on the skin depended on things like moisture, dryness and how oily the area was. Health Canal points out that fungal diversity, however, depends on the area of the body, not its climate.  

"The data from our study gives us a baseline about normal individuals that we never had before," Dr. Segre said. "The bottom line is your feet are teeming with fungal diversity, so wear your flip flops in locker rooms if you don't want to mix your foot fungi with someone else's fungi."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, almost everything, from soil to plants, our intestinal tracts to our mucous membranes, contains fungi. Most fungi are not dangerous, however. Things like penicillin, bread, wine and beer use ingredients from various fungi.

While fungi are generally harmless, there are some that can cause mild to severe symptoms in humans. Some fungal infections can cause a rash or mild respiratory illness. Others can lead to meningitis or even death.

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