Pioneer in the fight against a treacherous fungus

“In Germany, the genetic modification of Fusarium fungi and thus their functional genetic analysis, particularly in connection with human infections is my group’s unique characteristic.”

| by Charlotte Fuchs

Slavica Janevska in the Lab
Slavica Janevska. Source: Anna Schroll

“Filamentous fungi of the genus Fusarium belong to one of the most species-rich fungal genera of all, to which many pathogens are assigned. Fusarium infects numerous plants, causing crop losses worldwide, and they are also opportunistic human pathogens, i.e. they cause infections in humans.” Slavica Janevska heads the Thuringian research group “FusInfect - Fusarium infections: Molecular Biology and Diagnostics of an Underestimated Pathogen” at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology (Leibniz-HKI), which is integrated into the junior research group “(Epi‑ )Genetic Regulation of Fungal Virulence”. Janevska explains why she has remained loyal to the fungal genus Fusarium since her Master's thesis: “They can infect several hosts, including plants, animals and humans. I find this exciting, especially as we still understand far too little about the infection processes.”

While the infectious fungi Aspergillus fumigatus and Candida albicans have already been intensively researched, this has not yet been the case with Fusarium. Both the rapid diagnosis and the treatment of serious Fusarium infections pose great difficulties and cause a great deal of suffering. “This is a research gap that I hope to close a bit.”

Janevska has been leading the new research group, which is funded by the state of Thuringia with EU funds, for around a year. She and her team are studying Fusarium virulence factors and their regulation in order to better understand the infection and, above all, to be able to detect it more quickly and reliably. A major advantage here is the proximity to the National Reference Center for Invasive Fungal Infections (NRZMyk), with which the group is in close contact. “The NRZMyk examines patient isolates that are sent in by doctors to have the pathogens determined precisely and to test the effectiveness of antimycotics,” explains Janevska, referring to Grit Walther, who heads the Jena laboratory of the NRZMyk and is an expert in the taxonomy and diagnostics of fungi. Together with Slavica Janevska, she acquired the funding for the new research group. “We are sequencing the genomes of pathogenic Fusarium and want to find out how they infect the host.” Later, individual genes will be examined for their function using experimental laboratory infection models.

Invisible danger to the eyes

On the World Health Organization's list of harmful fungi published for the first time in 2022, Fusarium is in the High Priority Group, which deserves special attention. But what actually makes these fungi so dangerous? Invasive infections, which mainly affect patients with severely weakened immune systems, are often fatal as Fusarium is resistant to several classes of antifungal drugs. In addition to this danger, the infection of the cornea caused by Fusarium is a major problem. More than one million people worldwide are affected by fungal keratitis every year, 8-11% of whom lose their sight. According to figures from the NRZMyk (2014-2021), around 50% of corneal infections with filamentous fungi in Germany are caused by Fusarium. Users of soft contact lenses are particularly affected. “Poor hygiene probably plays a role. In individual cases, it can lead to the eye having to be surgically removed, even though the person is otherwise perfectly healthy,” explains Janevska. “So far, it is unclear whether there are more aggressive Fusarium species. We want to understand this in more detail.”

Understanding in order to fight

“We set up the group from scratch and have now settled well at the Leibniz-HKI,” recalls Janevska. “We now have an international team with different skills, which we bring together for the best possible collaboration. Our motto is: Understanding the fungus is the first step in combating it.” After completing her doctorate in Münster – on the subject of Fusarium, of course – Janevska came to the Leibniz-HKI as a postdoctoral researcher. With funding from the German Research Foundation, she then went to Amsterdam for three years, where she worked on epigenetic modifications in Fusarium.

The field of epigenetics eventually accompanied Janevska back to Jena. Epigenetics deals with cell processes that influence the activity of genes while the DNA sequence remains unchanged. In addition to infection mechanisms, host-pathogen interactions and improved diagnostics for Fusarium infections, the group is therefore also working on epigenetic regulation mechanisms, particularly in virulence-associated heterochromatic regions, and the biosynthesis and regulation of natural products.

Staff

Slavica Janevska
Grit Walther