When a 70-year old woman living in Tokyo fell ill with an ear infection in the late 2000s, doctors were at first at a loss to understand why she wasn't responding to commonly used antibiotics.
Analysis of a sample revealed that she was infected with a previously unknown species of the yeast genus Candida, named and described in 2009 as C. auris.
In the ten years since its discovery, Candida auris has killed hundreds of people all around the world. It is resistant to many front-line antibiotics and antifungal medicines, and is spreading rapidly and dangerously. 30–60% of people with C. auris infections have died.
This is one example of why taxonomy matters. Amongst the estimated 80% of species in the world that have not yet been discovered and documented (higher for fungi) are species like Candida auris, 'sleeper' threats to human and animal health, agriculture and the environment.
Discovering these before they wreak havoc can save vital time when they emerge, and make the difference between an effective and ineffective response. Unnamed species cannot be adequately identified: in the early stages of the spread of C. auris, standard clinical pathology tests misidentified samples as C. haemulonii or Rhodotorula glutinis, and ten years later lack of good protocols to identify C. auris means that its global distribution and spread, and genetic diversity, are still poorly understood.
Without good taxonomy, we're working from behind in the fight against emergent threats like Candida auris.
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