Tag Archives: fungi

Scientists look at ways to make cheap, eco-friendly leather alternatives from fungi

These renewable, sustainable materials hold great promise for the future, researchers conclude.

“Fungi-derived leather substitutes are an emerging class of ethically and environmentally responsible fabrics that are increasingly meeting consumer aesthetic and functional expectations and winning favour as an alternative to bovine and synthetic leathers.”

Leather-like products produced from fungal mycelium. Image credits: MycoTech/Bolt Threads/ Jones et al (2020).

Leather is one of the more common materials in the world. It’s used for anything from shoes and jackets to seat coverings — but it’s becoming somewhat less desirable in recent years. Leather, a co-product of meat production, is ethically questionable (as it involves the slaughtering of animals) and it’s bad for the environment: in addition to the deforestation and grazing required for livestock, there’s also the greenhouse gas emissions and the use of hazardous substances in the tanning process.

Meanwhile, traditional alternatives to leather, like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), are still based on fossil fuels.

“This is where leather-like materials from fungi come into play, which, in general, are CO2 neutral as well as biodegradable at the end of their life span,” says Alexander Bismarck from the Faculty of Chemistry at the University of Vienna.

Bismarck and his colleague Mitchell Jones from the University of Vienna reviewed several studies regarding the production of leather alternatives — specifically, those derived from fungi.

The first advantage of ‘fungi leather’ is that it is at least partially biodegradable. It’s also cheap to grow, making it cost-effective compared to leather. The fungi are basically grown using forestry byproducts such as sawdust, feeding growth for the fungal filaments (called the mycelium).

The literature already contains several studies involving various mushrooms such as the white button mushroom A. bisporus and the bracket fungus D. confragosa. They grow in only a few weeks, and they are then pressed and treated to mimic leather.

“As a result, these sheets of fungal biomass look like leather and exhibit comparable material and tactile properties,” says Alexander Bismarck.

In terms of physical parameters, the resulting material are comparable to leather. Already, several companies working on developing materials derived from fungi, with applications ranging from clothing to construction materials. The researchers also note that woven and felted fabrics are also
sometimes intertwined with mycelium to increase tensile and tear
strength.

The materials are also sustainable since the growth of fungi is effectively carbon neutral since it enables the capture and storage of carbon that would otherwise be emitted to or remain in the atmosphere.

However, there are also challenges, particularly with regard to uniformity. Achieving uniformity is challenging due to the inherent biological variation in fungal growth,

“In addition to being more environmentally sustainable to produce than leather and its synthetic alternatives, as they do not rely on livestock farming or the use of fossil resources, pure fungi-biomass-based leather substitutes are also biodegradable at the end of their service life and cheap to manufacture,” the researchers conclude.

Journal Reference: Nature Sustainability.

The soil of the Amazon is filled with fungi – and we should do more to protect it

Just a teaspoon of Amazonian soil contains as many as 1,800 microscopic life forms, of which up to 400 were classified as fungi, a new study found. Researchers described the fungal diversity as the “dark matter” of life on Earth, calling for further protection of the Amazon to study it.

Credit Flickr

Fungi are a key component of tropical biodiversity. However, due to their inconspicuous and largely subterranean nature, they are usually neglected in biodiversity inventories. Most of the estimated 3.8 million fungi in the world haven’t been formally classified yet.

If there’s a place where fungi are abundant in the soil, that’s the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. And in order to help protect the area, currently challenged by extractive activities such as deforestation and mining, it’s essential to understand the ecological role of fungi, researchers have argued.

“Take a teaspoon of soil and you will find hundreds or thousands of species. Fungi are the next frontier of biodiversity science,” Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and co-author of the study, told the BBC.

Antonelli and his team characterized fungal communities across Amazonia using environmental samples of soil and litter. They sampled four representative localities across the Brazilian Amazonia: Benjamin Constant, to the south of the Amazon river, Jaú, located to the west, Caxiuanã, located to the south, and Cuieras, located to the east.

The researchers sampled all depths of the litter layer above the mineral soil (all organic matter, including leaves, roots, and animal debris) and the top 5 cm of the mineral soil in a total of 39 circular plots. They also chose 20 random trees inside each plot and collected litter and soil on both sides of each tree. Then they pooled the samples by substrate to produce one litter sample and one soil sample per plot.

Genetic analysis of the samples showed hundreds of different fungi, including lichen, fungi living on the roots of plants, and fungal pathogens, most of which are unknown or extremely rare. Most species have yet to be named and investigated. Areas of naturally open grasslands, known as campinas, were found to be the richest habitat for fungi overall.

“We were surprised to find that campinas were, on average, the richest habitat for fungi. This stands in contrast to patterns observed for animals and plants. One explanation for the campinas being the richest environment may be the need for plants to associate with micro‐organisms that fix nutrients in the poor soil habitats,” the researchers wrote.

Fungi are highly important for recycling nutrients, regulating carbon dioxide levels, and as a source of food and medicines. Yet, some species can also affect trees, crops and other plants across the world, wiping out animals such as amphibians. Fungi in soil from tropical countries are particularly poorly understood.

The findings highlight the need to improve our understanding of the patterns and drivers of fungal diversity and community composition, the researchers argued. This is one of the most diverse eukaryotic kingdoms, whose members play key roles in nutrient cycling and biotic interactions in terrestrial ecosystems, they added.

“Deforestation of Amazonia is increasing rapidly and to protect this vast biome it is fundamental to understand the processes underpinning ecosystem stability. For this, we have to identify and understand the distribution and diversity of organisms essential for ecosystem functionality, including fungi,” the team concluded.

The study was published in the journal Ecology & Evolution.

Sanitizing homes gets rids of bacteria but makes room for fungi

Researchers have found that using cleaning products is effective at eradicating bacteria. However, the downside is cleansing the home of bacteria makes room for other microbes, such as fungi.

The findings were reported by researchers at the University of Oklahoma, who compared the microbial diversity in rural and urban homes from Peru and Brazil. They took samples from four locations in increasingly urban settings: from huts in the rainforest to city apartments in Manaus, the capital and largest city of the Brazilian state of Amazonas.

Samples were taken off the walls, floors, and countertops of the homes, as well as skin swabs from pets and people.

As the researchers converged towards more urban homes, bacterial diversity decreased, including so-called ‘good’ bacteria, some of which live in our gut. Meanwhile, fungal diversity actually increased in urban homes. Among them are fungi from the Malassezia genus, which contains strains that are known to cause infections.

This is probably due to the cleaning solutions that specifically target bacteria. Fungi, which have thick cell walls, are much harder to kill than your run-off-the-mill bacteria. And since urban homes are such good insulators, trapping CO2 and blocking sunlight, they’re also hospitable environments for the fungi. These differences in bacteria and fungi were also found on the skin of humans, not just in their homes.

“Maybe they’re scrubbing away all the bacteria and now you have this big open surface for fungi to grow on; maybe [the fungi] are also becoming more resistant to the cleaning agents that we use,” Laura-Isobel McCall, a biochemist at the University of Oklahoma, told NPR.

Besides bacteria, fungi, and some parasites, the researchers also tested the chemicals found inside the apartments. They found many more synthetic chemicals inside urban homes than in rural ones, sourced from items such as building materials, medications, and personal care products. In other words, urban environments are extremely artificial compared to rural ones — and these findings likely aren’t limited to Peru and Brazil.

If anything, this study shows that our efforts to sanitize our homes may never be satisfying. When you throw out one kind of germs, you’re just making room for other germs to break in.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Microbiology.

Microscope image of the billion-year-old fungi discovered in Canada's Arctic coast. Credit: Corentin Loron.

The first fungi may be a billion years old

Microscope image of the billion-year-old fungi discovered in Canada's Arctic coast. Credit: Corentin Loron.

Microscope image of the billion-year-old fungi discovered on Canada’s Arctic coast. Credit: Corentin Loron.

Fossils unearthed in Canada suggests that fungi — organisms that include mushrooms, mold, and yeast — are at least a billion years old. The discovery pushes back the existence of fungi by almost 500 million years and reshapes our understanding of how life on land appeared.

Really old shrooms

The tiny fossil specimens were found embedded in ancient rocks that are 900 million to 1 billion years old, according to radiocarbon dating. Corentin Loron, a Ph.D. student at the University of Liege in Belgium, knew they were dealing with some ancient fungi after they found evidence of chitin — a fibrous substance that forms on the fungal cell walls.

To reveal the fungal structures, the researchers first had to dissolve the rocks in which they were found with acid. After the minerals were removed, many floating microfossils became visible. These look like a partially deflated balloon with a stalk at the base which is connected to a long tube that links up with other balloon-shaped structures. Modern fungi look very similar, where the balloon structure is meant to hold spores while the tubes allow the organism to grow and expand across a surface. However, the billion-year-old fungi, which the researchers named Ourasphaira giraldae, have a unique characteristic: the stalk branches off at a right angle.

Fungi are eukaryotes, meaning they’re organisms whose cells possess a clearly defined nucleus. Plants and animals fall under the same eukaryote family.

“This means that if fungi are already present around 900-1000 million years ago, so should animals have been,” Loron told AFP.

“This is reshaping our vision of the world because those groups are still present today. Therefore, this distant past, although very different from today, may have been much more ‘modern’ than we thought.”

Previously, genetic studies suggested that fungi first appeared long before animals, about 900 million years ago. This new study agrees almost perfectly with the molecular data. If the dating is indeed accurate, it means we now have a clearer picture of when plants and animals branched off from one-celled eukaryotes.

Another thing that these findings show is that fungi are amazing creatures. Even today, perhaps a billion years later, they’re still incredibly successful. They’re among the most abundant organisms on the planet after plants and bacteria, being responsible for a third of the world’s biomass. All the fungi on the planet are actually six times heavier than the mass of all animals combined.

The study appeared in the journal Nature.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson in ISS Cupola.

The International Space Station is teeming with bacteria and fungi

Where humanity goes, microorganisms boldly follow.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson in ISS Cupola.

Self-portrait of Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing the Earth below during Expedition 24.
Image credits NASA / Tracy Caldwell Dyson via Wikimedia.

New research is pinpointing exactly who makes up the microflora on the International Space Station. The study — the first comprehensive catalogue of the bacteria and fungi on the inside surfaces of the ISS — can be used to develop safety measures for NASA for long-term space travel or living in space.

Space bugs

“Whether these opportunistic bacteria could cause disease in astronauts on the ISS is unknown,” says Dr Checinska Sielaff, first author of the study. “This would depend on a number of factors, including the health status of each individual and how these organisms function while in the space environment. Regardless, the detection of possible disease-causing organisms highlights the importance of further studies to examine how these ISS microbes function in space.”

Microflora can have a range of impacts on human health, so it pays to know exactly what you’re up against — especially in space. Astronauts show an altered immune response during missions, which is compounded by the difficulty of giving them proper medical care. The team hopes that their catalog can give future space mission planners a better idea of which bugs accumulate in the unique environments associated with spaceflight, how long each strain survives, and their possible impact on the crew and the ship itself.

Despite the exotic setting, the team used pretty run-of-the-mill culture techniques to sample the microflora of eight different locations inside the ISS. These included the viewing window, toilet, exercise platform, dining table, and sleeping quarters. The samples were taken during three flights across 14 months’ time, so the team could get an idea of how the tiny organisms fared over time. Genetic sequencing methods were used to identify the strains in these samples.

All in all, the team reports finding mostly human-associated microbes on the ISS. The most prominent included Staphylococcus (26% of total isolates), Pantoea (23%), and Bacillus (11%). The analysis also revealed the presence of bugs considered to be opportunistic pathogens here on Earth — such as Staphylococcus aureus (10% of total isolates identified), which is commonly found on the skin and in the nasal passages, and Enterobacter, which is associated with the human gastrointestinal tract. Opportunistic pathogens are regulars in gyms, offices, and hospitals, the team explains, suggesting that the ISS’s microbiome is also shaped by human occupation, as is similar in microbiome to other built environments.

But it’s not all about the crew.

“Some of the microorganisms we identified on the ISS have also been implicated in microbial induced corrosion on Earth. However, the role they play in corrosion aboard the ISS remains to be determined,” says Dr Urbaniak, joint first author of the study.

“In addition to understanding the possible impact of microbial and fungal organisms on astronaut health, understanding their potential impact on spacecraft will be important to maintain structural stability of the crew vehicle during long term space missions when routine indoor maintenance cannot be as easily performed.”

Fungal communities were quite stable over the study’s period, but microbial communities changed over time (but not across locations). Samples taken during the second flight mission had higher microbial diversity than samples collected during the first and third missions. The authors suggest that these temporal differences may come down to which astronauts are aboard the ISS at any given time. Dr Venkateswaran hopes this data can help NASA improve on-board safety measures, and that they will pave the way to safe, deep space human habitation.

“The results can also have significant impact on our understanding of other confined built environments on the Earth such as clean rooms used in the pharmaceutical and medical industries,” he adds.

The paper “Characterization of the total and viable bacterial and fungal communities associated with the International Space Station surfaces” has been published in the journal Microbiome.

Ant Close Up.

Farmer ants unknowingly domesticated their fungi crops by sequestering them in dry environments

Farmer ants have mastered agriculture long before humans — in fact, some species have been practicing almost industrial-scale agriculture on domesticated crops for millions of years now. Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History are now trying to determine exactly when and where that started.

Ant Close Up.

Ants are pretty cool. They also have the distinction of being the planet’s oldest farmers, seeing as they have a few millions of years ahead of us on the whole thing. Safely ensconced in underground shelters, these insects have been working and munching on various types of fungi the whole time. But some time in their agricultural development path, one group of ants got even better at farming by completely domesticating their crops.

This allowed them to tailor the crop to their needs, achieving a level of complexity that rivals our agricultural practices today. We know this group as higher agriculture ants, while their counterparts that toil away on wild or half-wild crops are called lower agriculture ants. To find out when and why the transition from lower to higher agriculture took place, researchers from the Smithsonian National Museum have traced the genetic heritage of farming and non-farming ants from wet and dry habitats throughout the Neotropics.

The high agriculture ant

Ants and the fungi they grow share an almost symbiotic relationship. When a queen’s daughter leaves the nest to establish a colony, for example, she takes a piece of fungi to start the new crop. For lower agriculture ants, however, this bond isn’t quite as tight. Such species live primarily in wet rainforests, where the fungi can escape the colony and settle in the wild. If the crops falter, the ants will sometimes go fetch fungi back to the colony — so it’s not all bad that both species are less dependent upon the other.

But this more casual fling means the fungi used for the crops is at best a mix of cultivated and wild heritage, limiting the ants’ ability to domesticate it.

 

And as we’ve found out throughout time, you absolutely, definitely, hands-down want to domesticate your crops. It makes food look better, taste better, more nutritious, and most importantly, more plentiful. One side effect of domestication, however, is that the crops lose most of their ability to survive without farmers, since they’re so well adapted to being tasty, guarded, and tended to, that they’re bad at everything else.

That’s also the case with higher agriculture ants. Their crops are completely dependent on the ant farmers and have never been found living without them. Higher agricultural ants’ food grows faster and is more nutritious, so they can live in bigger communities and pool all resources towards growing the fungus, removing pathogens, hauling waste, and keeping environmental conditions just right for the crops.

“These higher agricultural-ant societies have been practicing sustainable, industrial-scale agriculture for millions of years,” said Schultz. “Studying their dynamics and how their relationships with their fungal partners have evolved may offer important lessons to inform our own challenges with our agricultural practices.”

“Ants have established a form of agriculture that provides all the nourishment needed for their societies using a single crop that is resistant to disease, pests and droughts at a scale and level of efficiency that rivals human agriculture.”

Today, however, many species of agricultural ants are threatened by habitat loss. Schultz has been collecting specimens from various species to preserve in the museum’s cryogenic biorepository for future genomic studies in case these ants go extinct. For this study, he and his colleagues have compared the genes of 119 modern ant species, most of which were collected over decades of Schultz’s work in the field. The DNA sequences were compared at over 1,500 genome sites of 78 fungus-farmer and 41 non-fungus-farming ant species.

Divide and domesticate

Ted Schultz and co-author Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo excavate a lower fungus-farming ant nest in the seasonally dry Brazilian Cerrado, 2009.
Image credits Cauê Lopes and Ted Schultz / Smithsonian.

They identified the closest living non-farming relative of today’s fungus-farming ants based on their analysis, then looked at the geographic range of these species to try and deduce under what conditions higher agriculture emerged. In other words, when the crops became dependent on the ants for survival. According to the evolutionary tree they constructed based on the genetic analysis, the team believes ants first transitioned to higher agriculture in a dry or seasonally dry climate, somewhere around 30 million years ago.

Mean temperatures on Earth were dropping at the time, so dry areas were becoming more prevalent. As more and more ants lost their initial habitat and moved to these areas, they brought their crops along. But the fungi evolved to live in forests and couldn’t do the old leave-the-nest trick without dying here. In fact, they couldn’t do the old don’t-die trick at all without the ants in the new environment.

 

“But if your ant farmer evolves to be better at living in a dry habitat, and it brings you along and it sees to all your needs, then you’re going to be doing okay,” Schultz explains.

“If things are getting a little too dry, the ants go out and get water and they add it. If they’re too wet, they do the opposite.”

So the fungi became completely dependent on the ants since they couldn’t escape and return to the wild. Being carried over into a hostile habitat, the fungi’s survival depended on the survival of the colony and it found itself “bound in a relationship with those ants” what wasn’t there in wet forests, Shultz adds.

 

The shift shows how a species can become domesticated even without its farmers consciously selecting for certain traits, as human farmers would do. By moving into the drier habitats, the ants isolated their crops and decoupled their evolution from its relatives — making it take on new traits that it wouldn’t need in the wild.

The full paper “Dry habitats were crucibles of domestication in the evolution of agriculture in ants” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Incredible fungi timelapse from BBC’s Planet Earth II

Fewer things are more pleasant than hearing David’s Attenborough soothing voice accompanied by some spectacular nature footage. The sequel to the legendary Planet Earth is upon us, but, unfortunately, if you’re not in the UK, watching it online will prove difficult. Video fragments have been published but full episodes are mostly unavailable unless your provider has an agreement with the BBC.

This footage comes from Jungles episode (UK only) and includes a few specimens shot for the very first time by Steve Axford, which we have also featured in the past.

“Fungi, unlike plants, thrive in the darkness of the forest fall. They’re hidden until they begin to develop the incredible structures with which they reproduce. Each releases millions of microscopic spores that drift invisibly away,” David Attenborough explains.

Seriously, if you haven’t seen Planet Earth (or Planet Earth II – the episodes that have emerged), stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it now. Your life will not be the same again.

Credits: BBC via This is Colossal.

Trees trade carbon through their roots, using symbiotic fungi networks

A forest’s trees capture carbon not only for themselves, but also engage in an active “trade” of sorts with their neighbors, a new study found. University of Basel botanists found that this process, conducted by symbiotic fungi in the forest’s soil, takes place even among trees of different species.

Image credits pexel user veeterzy

Plants rely on photosynthesis for energy and growth. Through this process, carbon is extracted from atmospheric CO2 and used to synthesize carbohydrates (sugars). These are then further processed into stuff that a growing plant needs, like cellulose, lignin (a polymer that gives wood its resilience,) protein and lipids. Some of the sugars get sent down to the roots and shared with the tree’s underground symbiotic fungi (known as mycorrhizal fungi) in exchange for nutrients that they extract from the soil.

It’s a very effective process, providing the plant with everything it needs without it having to move a single branch. But it all falls apart without enough carbon dioxide or light, and in a thick forest these can be hard to come by. So then, why don’t young trees just wither, choked under the canopy of much bigger, older trees? Well, the answer might lie in a type of tree socialism — and mycorrhizal fungi make it all happen.

Dr. Tamir Klein and Prof. Christian Körner of the University of Basel, working with Dr. Rolf Siegwolf of the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) have found that forest trees use the fungal network to trade sugars among themselves. The researchers used a construction crane and a system of fine tubes to saturate the crowns of 120 year old, 40 meter tall spruce trees in a forest near Basel with labeled CO2. The gas was processed to contain less of the heavier 13C isotope than normal air.

Image credits University of Basel

For the trees, this CO2 was just as good as the rest and they gulped it all up. But it allowed the team to track the carbon atoms through the tree using mass spectrometers. They traced the atoms on their way from crown to the roots of the spruce trees and as they entered the fungi. But then something unexpected happened: neighboring trees (even those of other species) also showed the same markers even though they had not received the labelled carbon dioxide.

If the gas would have been absorbed directly by these trees, then some of it would have been caught by the underbrush too — understory plants however remained entirely unmarked. And the differentiated carbon was only found in their roots. The only explanation for its presence is an exchange between the trees through the tiny filaments of the mycorrhizal fungi.

The team considers this natural exchange of large quantities of carbon “a big surprise,” especially as it also takes place among completely unrelated species. They estimate that in an 68 meter wide and 100 meter long area the fungal network can transport around 280 kilograms of carbon a year. That accounts for nearly half the carbon in the trees’ fine roots.

“Evidently the forest is more than the sum of its trees,” Prof. Christian Körner comments.

The full paper, titled “Belowground carbon trade among tall trees in a temperate forest” has been published online in the journal Science and can be read here.

The Most Wanted Fungi list compiled to guide mycologists’ research efforts

Faced with the underwhelming speed at which the scientific community studies and describes fungi, a group of researches put together a list of the 50 “Most Wanted Fungi” — and re-vamped the UNITE database to put the spotlight on the least-known strains.

Fungal diversity in the Amazon rainforest is a tantalizing field, where sequence data can make a big difference. The photo is taken during soil sampling in a remote corner of the Amazon basin.
Image credits Camila Duarte Ritter.

Scientific literature has been doing a pretty poor job of studying fungi up to now, and given some of the spectacular things we’ve seen them do or their uses, that is a huge loss on our part. Millions of fungal strains are still to be described and a greater part of the fungal DNA sequences held by public databases cannot be reliably assigned to any known group. We don’t even know where many of them fit in the tree of life, who they’re related to and how they evolved — and if there’s one thing scientists dread its not being able to categorize stuff.

Faced with this frustrating status quo, an international group of scientists led by Dr Henrik Nilsson from the University of Gothenburg has put together a search function in the UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi. Their goal is to put the least-studied strains (the awesomely named “50 Most Wanted Fungi” list) into the spotlight, inviting the scientific community to determine their taxonomic affiliation; and, in the end, bridge the huge knowledge gap between fungal taxonomy and molecular ecology.

With roughly 100,000 formally described species of fungi out of an estimated 6 million currently in existence, it’s going to take a whole lot of bridging. But while there’s no shortage of research venues for scientists, the team is worried that there is a shortage of communication between researchers; the sheer diversity of dark fungal strains evidenced through molecular techniques suggests that the dialogue between the fields of fungal taxonomy and DNA sequencing in environmental substrates such as soil and water still has room for improvement.

Sampling of fungal biodiversity in soil is a standardized field where little high-tech equipment is needed but where spectacular discoveries are often made.
Image credit go to Henrik Nilsson.

“There is no taxonomic feedback loop in place to highlight the presence of these enigmatic lineages to the mycological community, and they often end up in sequence databases for years without attracting significant research interest,” explain the authors. “More than 10 years in some cases, as a matter of fact.”

The new search function produces lists of roughly genus-level clusters of fungal DNA with unknown taxonomic affiliation. These lists are re-constructed each month, to keep track of any updates and additions made in between iterations. To help researchers select groups of fungi or environments to research, a set of keyword-filtered lists is provided. This allows researchers to zoom in on unknown fungi collected, for example, from built environments or aquatic habitats.

Dr. Nilsson and his colleagues hope that their system will make the study and formal description of these species easier — and faster. Community participation is encouraged, and the UNITE database has extensive support for third-party annotation.

Commenting on the tongue-in-cheek name they chose for the list, the team wants to clarify that the fungi themselves are not guilty of any crime:

“Indeed, nothing can be said of the way they make a living. It is simply not known. We make no claim as to the importance of these fungi from whatever point of view – ecological, economic, or otherwise,” they stress. “We do make claim to their uniqueness, though, because it is frustrating, in the year 2016, not to be able to assign a name to a fungal sequence even at the phylum level.”

“We hope that the present publication will serve to put the spotlight on these uncharted parts of the fungal tree of life, and we invite the reader to examine them through our online tools or otherwise,” they conclude.

The full paper, titled “Top 50 Most Wanted Fungi” has been published online in the journal MycoKeys and can be read here.

Bread mold could build the batteries of the future

A study of a strain of red bread mold could revolutionize our rechargeable battery technology. The paper’s findings could be the first step towards producing sustainable electrochemical materials.

Image via ulb.ac.be, credits to Albert Goldbeter.

That yucky slimy brick-red stuff that grows on your bread (if you happen to have bread that’s a few weeks old lying around un-microwaved) might, at first sight, seem not any good to anyone. Ever. But you’d be wrong. Known as Neurospora crassa, scientists have recently shown that this fungus can take manganese from its food and tie it into mineral composites with properties that lend well to battery-making.

“We have made electrochemically active materials using a fungal manganese biomineralization process,” says Geoffrey Gadd of the University of Dundee in Scotland.

“The electrochemical properties of the carbonized fungal biomass-mineral composite were tested in a supercapacitor and a lithium-ion battery, and it [the composite] was found to have excellent electrochemical properties. This system therefore suggests a novel biotechnological method for the preparation of sustainable electrochemical materials.”

Gadd and his colleagues have worked with fungi before, studying how they transform metal and other elements’ atoms in surprising (and often very useful) ways. Their earlier work shows how fungi can be used to fixate toxic lead and uranium compounds, for example. That research had them wondering whether the fungi could offer a useful method for the preparation of novel electrochemical materials, too.

“We had the idea that the decomposition of such biomineralized carbonates into oxides might provide a novel source of metal oxides that have significant electrochemical properties,” Gadd says.

For the study, Gadd and his team incubated N. Crassa in a medium enriched in urea and manganese chloride (MnCl2). The long, branching fungal filaments (known as hyphae) became either biomineralized with or enevloped by minerals of various compositions. After heat-treating the fungus, the resulting mixture of carbonized biomass and manganese oxides were shown to have ideal electrochemical properties for use in supercapacitators (lithium-ion batteries).

“We were surprised that the prepared biomass-Mn oxide composite performed so well,” Gadd says.

Compared to other attempts to incorporate manganese oxides in lithium-ion batteries, Gadd’s biomass-mineral composite “showed an excellent cycling stability and more than 90% capacity was retained after 200 cycles,” he says.

Gadd’s team is the first to prove the effectiveness of biosynthesizing active electrode material using fungal mineralization processes. Gadd says the next step is to explore the use of fungi in producing potentially useful metal carbonates. They’re also interested in finding fungal processes for  valuable or scarce metal recovery in other chemical forms.

The full paper, titled “Fungal Biomineralization of Manganese as a Novel Source of Electrochemical Materials” has been published online in the journal Current Biology and can be read here.

Section of rock coloniszed by cryptoendolithic microorganisms and the Cryomyces fungi in quartz crystals under an electron microscope. Credit: S. Onofri et al. Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-01-antarctic-fungi-survive-martian-conditions.html#jCp

Extreme Antarctic fungi survives in Martian habitat, as well as space

Researchers at European Space Agency (ESA) collected fungi that live in one of the harshest places on Earth — McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica — then shipped some to the ISS. Here, populations were subjected to both a Martian environment and directly exposed to space. In both situations, fungi survived after 18 months though those breeding in the Martian environment proved to be far better adapted. Lichen were also tested under the same circumstances. These too survived, which gives hope that there might be a chance for life on Mars to exist.

Left: The EXPOSE-E platform was sent on the ISS. Right: the European researchers involved in the study. Image: ESA

Left: The EXPOSE-E platform was sent on the ISS. Right: the European researchers involved in the study. Image: ESA

The European researchers went to the Antarctic Victoria Land a couple years back, and collected specimens belonging to  Cryomyces antarcticus and Cryomyces minteri. These are what scientists class as  cryptoendolithic fungi — microorganisms able to survive in the cracks of rocks, hence they stay “hidden” (crypto).

Section of rock coloniszed by cryptoendolithic microorganisms and the Cryomyces fungi in quartz crystals under an electron microscope. Credit: S. Onofri et al.

Section of rock coloniszed by cryptoendolithic microorganisms and the Cryomyces fungi in quartz crystals under an electron microscope. Credit: S. Onofri et al.

The organisms were placed in tiny cells (1.4 cm in diameter) and shipped to the International Space Station  on a platform for experiments known as EXPOSE-E. The platform was placed  outside the Columbus module with the help of an astronaut from the team led by Belgian Frank de Winne. For 18 months, half the population was exposed unabated to space, while the other half was isolated in a habitat that resembled conditions on Mars. Specifically: 95% CO2, 1.6% argon, 0.15% oxygen, 2.7% nitrogen and 370 parts per million of H2O; and a pressure of 1,000 pascals (1% of that on Earth). Through optical filters, radiation was shot to simulate the environment of Mars.

fungi space

Image: DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine

About 60% endolithic communities survived in the Martian environment, with DNA still intact. However, less than 10% of the retrieved fungi samples exposed to Martian conditions were capable of proliferating and forming colonies. Only 35% of the fungal cells exposed to space conditions kept their membranes intact.

As part of the experiment, researchers also studied the survivability and proliferation of Rhizocarpon geographicum and Xanthoria elegans. These lichen species can be found in very high-mountain regions, like  Spain’s Sierra de Gredos and Austria’s Alps. Again, half were exposed to space, while the other half lived in a Martian dome. After more than a year and a half, the two species of lichens ‘exposed to Mars’ showed double the metabolic activity of those that had been subjected to space conditions, even reaching 80% more in the case of the species Xanthoria elegans.

The findings published in Astrobiology offer clues that if life ever appeared on Mars, it could still be there. Maybe in the cracks on crevices of Martian rocks, which is why NASA is very careful where it sends its rovers to lower the risk of biological contamination.

Even More Spectacular Fungi Photos by Steve Axford

In September 2014, we were telling you about Steve Axford’s spectacular mushroom photography. I was truly fascinated by the art and the insight he provides into this tiny and mysterious world. Most of his work is done on Australian fungus, and he says he likes to take pictures of things that are close to home.

“My photography has been my avenue into this world as it slows me down and allows me to look at things more closely. Most of my photography is still pictures, as you will mostly see on this site. I try to combine the beauty I see with some scientific accuracy, so most of my photos could be used to identify things and will show the fine detail,” he told us back then.

Since, he has made it his mission to document some of the world’s most unique and spectacular species. But his work is not just art – there might be some real scientific value here. Because he goes to such extreme lengths to capture the perfect photo, he suspects that many of the species he found are in fact entirely unknown to science. Hopefully, we’ll learn the truth soon, but in the meantime, we can definitely enjoy the beauty of his work.

You can find out more about him (or see some of his other pictures, fungi or non-fungi) on his smugsmug Page or on his Flickr.

Deep lying bacteria found, reproduce only once in 10.000 years

A surprisingly diverse range of life forms exists deep in the oceanic crust, but they live at an extremely slow pace. Long lived bacteria, which reproduce only once in 10.000 years, have been found in rocks 2.5km below the ocean floor, rocks which are 100 million years old. Viruses and fungi have also been found in the same conditions.

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Aside from its intrinsic value, the discovery raises some significant questions, regarding how life can persist under such extreme conditions of temperature, pressure, and apparent lack of nutrients. Scientists from the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program have announced the findings at the Goldschmidt conference, in Florence, Italy.

It’s not the first time the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program has come up with exciting results – in 2012, they set a new record for scientific ocean drilling, and in March this year, they reported the first case of bacteria living in the oceanic crust. Now, Fumio Inagaki of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology explained that the microbes exist in very low concentrations – around 1000 in every teaspoon of sample, compared to the billions or trillions which you would get in the same amount of surface material.

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Just as interesting, they found that not only do viruses also exist at these depths, but they significantly outnumber the bacteria – 10 to 1, and even more as you go deeper. This offers some important information on what we know on viruses.

“We’re pushing the boundaries of what we understand about how viruses cycle on Earth elsewhere, by studying them in the deep biosphere” Dr Beth Orcutt of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, US, explained.

Alive… or just undead?

The characteristics of these specimens make researchers question if they even are alive.

“One of the biggest mysteries of life below the sea floor is that although there are microbes down there it’s really hard to understand how they have enough energy to live and how incredibly slowly they are growing.

“The deeper we look, the deeper we are still finding cells, and the discussion now is where is the limit? Is it going to be depth, is it going to be temperature? Where is the limit from there being life to there being no life?”

They are reproducing so rarely that it’s very much unlike anything science has encountered so far.

“The other question we have is that even though we are finding cells, is it really true to call it alive when it’s doubling every thousands of years? It’s almost like a zombie state,” Dr Orcutt commented.

A reproductive cycle of 10.000 years is indeed a few magnitudes of order higher than anything we know, but these microbial communities which inhabit the deep earth are alive by every definition, and they may very well change what we think about life itself.