The mere mention of the term "poison ivy" can send some people -- including Batman - into sudden spasms of scratching accompanied by shivers down the spine. Many of us believe this plant, which is actually a member of the sumac family causes little more than a localized rash, blistering and burning itch. But over its history, contact with this plant has caused significantly worse symptoms, sending people to hospital with severe complications including kidney damage and secondary bacterial infections.
The reason for the plant's toxic nature is the presence of a chemical called urushiol, found in the sap of the plant. After even the slightest contact with the skin, the chemical causes the cells to signal the immune system of an impending threat. Over a few hours, several different types of policing cells enter the area and recognize a battle has begun. However, the enemy is not a virus or a bacterium; it's a chemical molecule. As a result, the defense forces start to fight against an evasive enemy with the skin cells themselves taking the brunt of the action. The damage is quick to appear and may take weeks to resolve. It's an unfortunate short circuit in our immunology for which we have little to no answer.
Poison Ivy grows freely in Canada -- with the exception of Newfoundland. Because of the presence of urushiol, there are no known predators. Our only defenses have been through the act of prevention. The first is best described by the rhyme, "Leaves of three leave it be," which essentially advises people to simply know the look of the plant and then avoid touching it. For adults, this may be a simple rule to follow but for children, this is practically unfeasible. The other is through the use of herbicides, which kill the plant upon contact. While this practice may be effective in small, localized areas, the environmental impact suggests there is more harm than good with widespread use.
But this past week, a team from Virginia Tech may have accidentally found a new weapon against this apparently unstoppable enemy. They had originally been trying to find ways to cultivate the poison ivy for botanical purposes but continued to have problems getting the plants to mature past the seedling stage. Investigating further, the group realized they had a common problem on their hands: a fungus was killing the seedlings. As with any serendipitous finding, they were at first disappointed with the result. Then it hit them: this could be revolutionary.
Turning away from the plant and to the fungus, the team sought to determine the nature of the ivy-killer. What they found, however, was not some new strain of super fungus. Instead, this was a rather well known varietal of a fruit and insect pathogen known as Colletotrichum fioriniae. This particular species of fungus was first described back in 2009 in the insect known as the elongate hemlock scale, a pest of conifer trees in many parts of North America. When exposed to the fungus, these insects failed to develop and eventually died off leaving their population decimated. For the researchers, this meant there could be a two-for-one possibility. Widespread use of the fungus could help to preserve forests as well as keep the poison ivy at bay.
While the idea might seem to be perfect, its application may have to wait. While C. fioriniae may have the capabilities of a caped crusader; there are negative aspects to its nature. The fungus is also known to cause a different kind of blistering disease in plants, known as anthracnose - no relation to anthrax. The condition is most commonly recognized by the formation of cankers in fruits, like strawberries and tomatoes, however there is a wide range of plants affected by this fungus. As a result, the potential of simply scattering fungal spores in the hopes of controlling poison ivy is present but not for all areas, particularly those where fruits and other plants may be at risk.
Even though this limitation exists, for the researchers at Virginia Tech and others trying to find ways to limit the reach of poison ivy, this result is a significant move forward. The next steps will be to identify which biological components produced by the fungus prevent the plant from growing properly. Once they have achieved this, they can find a means to mass produce the molecule so everyone will have the chance to end this villainous reign. Within a few years, this inadvertent discovery will finally offer us a natural, non-toxic control option for one of humanity's worst-feared toxic plants. For everyone who has suffered or is at risk of suffering, that moment cannot come soon enough.
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