The human pathogenic yeast C. neoformans, a close and visually indistinguishable relative of a fungus that appeared mysteriously on Vancouver Island over a decade ago. CDC/Public Domain. Click for source.

Healthy humans are strangely impervious to fatal fungi. It usually takes something like a shot in the spine with a contaminated drug to give fungi the necessary upper hand. Sure, fungi can be maddening skin irritants, but when was the last time you heard that someone with a normal immune system had died of a fungus? It does happen, as sufferers of Valley Fever, Histoplasmosis, and a handful of other diseases can attest, but it is rare.

So it came as a big surprise, when, in 2001, the public health authorities in British Columbia realized they had something seemingly unprecedented on their hands: a growing outbreak of a lethal fungal pathogen capable of infecting healthy people and never before been seen on the island -- and suddenly, inexplicably, four times more virulent.

You can find out what happened next in my first feature story for Scientific American magazine, complete with gorgeous graphics by Sci Am's Art Department, in the December 2012 print issue (Vive la Print!). Or you can read it online here. I also wrote an Online Extra that looks at how a fungus that ordinarily lives on trees and soil is able to make itself at home inside a human (or porpoise or ferret). The answer is here.