Mushrooms (or to be more precise, fungi) can sometimes fit into the tiniest of places. We’re not talking tiny cracks or fissures — the filaments of some fungi can creep in between plant and animal cells. But only the ones that grow slowly can do it.
Fungi are nature’s recycling system. Neither plants nor animals, fungi can break down organic materials — but they can also cause a lot of problems for other organisms by infecting them. Part of the reason that makes fungi so dangerous is that they can penetrate the spaces between tightly-connected plant or animal cells.
They do this with their hyphae (the branching filaments that create a large network called a mycelium) but only some species seem to have this squeezing ability. To figure out why this is and how it happens, a team led by Professor Norio Takeshita at the University of Tsukuba, with collaborators at Nagoya University and in Mexico, compared seven fungi from different taxonomic groups.
They set up a clever design, where the fungi had to respond to an obstruction that forced them to pass through very narrow channels of about 1 micron wide. This width is narrower than the typical diameter of the hyphae, which is usually 2-5 microns.
“Since the channels are much narrower than the diameter of hyphae, the hyphae must change its morphology when they grow through the channels,” the study authors write.
For some species, it wasn’t much of an issue: they just kept on growing through the narrow opening and on the other side without showing much change. But for others, this was a big problem — they either stopped growing or grew at a much slower rate. After they emerged on the other side, they were still affected. They would sometimes develop a swollen tip and change their direction of growth, struggling to get past the obstacle.
Remarkably, the tendency to slow down growth didn’t seem to be affected by the diameter of the hyphae, and closely-related fungi seemed to behave in different ways, so it’s not clear exactly what directs different behavior.
However, when researchers injected fluorescent dyes in living fungi, they noticed that when hyphae struggled to get through the narrow openings, their cellular processes started to malfunction. For instance, the vesicles that supply the lipids and proteins needed for hyphae growth were no longer organized.
The team also found that species with faster growth rates and higher pressure within the cell were more prone to disruption. In other words, some fungi give up on resilience in favor of faster growth.
“For the first time, we have shown that there appears to be a trade-off between cell plasticity and growth rate,” says Professor Takeshita. “When a fast-growing hypha passes through a narrow channel, a massive number of vesicles congregate at the point of constriction, rather than passing along to the growing tip. This results in depolarized growth: the tip swells when it exits the channel, and no longer extends. In contrast, a slower growth rate allows hyphae to maintain correct positioning of the cell polarity machinery, permitting growth to continue through the confined space.”
This study could have application in biotechnology as well as in medicine, as it could enable doctors to develop better anti-fungal treatments.
“This is the first report indicating a trade-off between plasticity and velocity in mycelial growth, and serves to understand fungal invasive growth into substrates or plant/animal cells, with direct impact on fungal biotechnology, ecology and pathogenicity,” the researchers conclude
The article “Trade-off between plasticity and velocity in mycelial growth”, was recently published in mBio at doi.org/10.1128/mBio.03196-20
By some accounts, mushrooms (or rather, fungi) have been around for six hundred million years ago, even before plants emerged. They have their own kingdom, separate from both plants and animals because their biology is so different from both groups.
What we ordinarily call a ‘mushroom’ is just the fruiting body of the mushroom. The rest of the mushrooms’ life cycle is characterized by vegetative mycelial growth and asexual spore production. Believe it or not, mushroom blooming is quite the sight — except we’re not there to see it most of the time.
The timelapse was originally posted by Next Observer, as far as I can find. It became viral on several Facebook pages over the past year, but let’s face it, not everyone hangs on Facebook pages nowadays. So if you want to get your shroomy fix, it’s the best place to start. If you’re looking for more, check out our previous articles on the wonderful mushroom photographs of Steve Axford.
A serendipitous discovery may rewrite a big chunk of Earth’s history. It’s potentially the world’s oldest terrestrial fossil — and if this is the case, it may have played an important role in an event called the Snowball Earth.
Some 650 million years ago, the Earth was a very different place. It’s not just that the continents were in different positions and almost all of the Earth’s life was concentrated in the oceans, but the earth itself was different — it was frozen.
It wasn’t just a thin layer or a few moving glaciers, the oceans were sealed away from the Sun by more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) of solid ice. We know this thanks to geological evidence of big glaciers around the equator — and if the equator had big glaciers, so too did the rest of the world. Then, almost in no time (‘no time’ from a geological standpoint), our world began to thaw.
The reasons why this Snowball Earth ended are even less clear than the reasons why it started, but whatever the case was, this allowed life to thrive on land for the first time. Some researchers have suspected that fungi were among the first creatures to colonize the newly-thawed environment, but finding evidence has proven almost impossible.
Much of what we know about ancient life comes from fossils, but since mushrooms’ soft tissues rarely fossilize, it’s been hard to learn anything about their early history. This is where the new discovery comes in: an international team of scientists in South China has discovered what appears to be fungi fossils in a rock dating 635 million years ago.
It’s not the first time such a fossil has popped up. In the past two years alone, the early history of fungi was given a complete makeover.
In 2019, scientists reported the discovery of a fungus-like fossil in Canada. The microscopic fossil was found in an estuary and was dated to 1 billion years ago. This would put fungus evolution before that of plants. In 2020, another study dated other microscopic fungus fossils to between 715 and 810 million years ago. For comparison, the first dinosaurs emerged around 230 million years ago.
Now, a new study adds more weight to the idea of early fungal evolution.
“It was an accidental discovery,” said Gan. “At that moment, we realized that this could be the fossil that scientists have been looking for a long time. If our interpretation is correct, it will be helpful for understanding the paleoclimate change and early life evolution,” said Tian Gan, a visiting Ph.D. student in the Xiao Lab at Virginia Tech, led by Shuhai Xiao.
Of course, serendipity can only get you so far. Xiao and Gan know exactly which rocks have the best odds of offering interesting microfossils, but even so, there’s a big element of chance to it. So when they looked at one particular rock and found fossilized, thread-like filaments (a trademark of fungi), they were thrilled.
There is still some controversy about whether these are indeed fungi and not something else (as with the previous studies), but thorough microscopic analysis seems to suggest this is likely the case. The filaments are definitely organic in nature, and while bacteria can also produce this type of filament, they are much more consistent with fungi than bacteria.
This would put fungi at a turning point in the evolution of life on Earth. Fungi do a lot of unglamorous tasks, breaking down both minerals and organic matter. They play an important role now, by recycling nutrients into the ecosystem, and they would have done the same thing 635 million years ago, potentially paving the way for plants and animals to move in.
“The question used to be: ‘Were there fungi in the terrestrial realm before the rise of terrestrial plants’,” explains Xiao. “And I think our study suggests yes.”
If you ever needed a good reason to eat more mushrooms, here it is: adding mushrooms to your diet can increase the intake of key micronutrients most of us are actually lacking (such as vitamin D) without affecting the intake of calories, a new study found. The benefits were found on both the diets of children and adults and are in line with a growing literature on the benefits of mushrooms.
More mushrooms, please
The finding is especially relevant in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Studies have shown low levels of vitamin D among patients diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, and there seems to be a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and severe COVID-19 cases, although there are no conclusive findings just yet.
Mushrooms, the bodies of filamentous fungi that grow above the ground, have long been a part of the human diet and used as both foods and medicine. They provide many of the same nutritional benefits as vegetables, as well as attributes commonly found in meat, beans, and grains (such as a high number of proteins). They’re biologically distinct from both plants and animals.
A group of US researchers modelled the nutritional impact of adding a serving of mushrooms, using the dietary intake data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) — which includes at a sample of 10,000 adults and children every two years. The focused on the surveys from 2011 to 2016 for the study.
In a previous study, they had already found that mushroom intake was associated with higher intakes of several key nutrients and better diet quality. However, the intake was low at 2.3 g per day per capita or 20.6 g per day among consumers in the US. Now, they wanted to look at what would happen if consumers started eating more mushrooms. Unsurprisingly, the more mushrooms people consumed, the better they scored for key nutrients.
Adding a serving of 84 grams of mushroom to the diet increased several nutrients that are often lacking from our diets, the researchers found. This was true for the white, crimini, portabella, and oyster mushrooms. An increase in fiber (5%-6%), copper (24%-32%), phosphorus (6%), potassium (12%-14%), selenium (13%-14%) and zinc (5%-6%) and riboflavin (13%-15%) was reported.
The study also showed that a serving of UV-light mushrooms (mushrooms exposed to UV light) decreased population insufficiency for vitamin D from 95.3% to 52.8% for the age group 9-18 years and from 94.9% to 63.6% for the age group 19+ years. Similar to humans, mushrooms naturally produce vitamin D following exposure to sunlight or a sunlamp.
“This research validated what we already knew that adding mushrooms to your plate is an effective way to reach the dietary goals,” Mary Jo Feeney, nutrition research coordinator to the Mushroom Council, said in a statement. “Data from surveys are used to assess nutritional status and its association with health promotion and disease prevention and assist with formulation of national standards.”
Studies showed over the years similar large behind mushrooms. Mushroom eaters (people who ate two portions of mushrooms per week) performed better in brain tests and had overall faster brain processing speed, a 2019 study showed. Also, in 2017, a study found mushrooms have high levels of ergothioneine and glutathione, two compounds with important antioxidant properties.
A new species of mushroom has been discovered in the Assam province, northeastern India. It glows.
A team of researchers from India and China reports on two weeks of fieldwork in the Assam region, during which they spotted several new species of mushrooms. The most exciting of these is a species that locals describe as “electric mushrooms” that lives on dead bamboo. The species, christened Roridomyces phyllostachydis is bioluminescent — it produces its own light.
“The members of the genus Roridomyces are very fragile and they love moist and humid conditions,” explained Samantha Karunarathna, senior mycologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author of the report.
“In general, bioluminescent mushrooms seem to have co-evolved together with some specific insects as these mushrooms attract insects to disperse their spores.”
The species may be new to science, but locals have known about (and used) it for quite a while now. They’ve been employing bamboo sticks with these glowing mushrooms growing on them as natural torches at night, for example.
It only grows on dead bamboo, the team explains, although it’s not immediately apparent why. It may be the case that the bamboo substrate offers special conditions or resources that the fungus prefers, according to Karunarathna, but until the issue is researched more thoroughly, we can’t know for sure. This is the first species of the genus Roridomyces to be discovered in India, the team adds.
The team recovered samples of the mushrooms, dried them, and then performed a genetic analysis to understand where it fits on the tree of life. Both morphological features and its genetic heritage support its position as a new species in the genus Roridomyces. Currently, 12 other species are known in this genus, and five of them are also bioluminescent. The team named the species phyllostachydis after the genus of the host bamboo tree (Phyllostachys) from which it was collected.
During the day, they look pretty unassuming. However, at night they glow with a clear, green light — but only from its stripes and mycelia (which are a rough equivalent to roots) that are burrowing into the bamboo. The mushrooms’ brown caps do not emit light at all.
So why does it glow? Bioluminescence is most commonly seen in ocean environments than on dry land, although fireflies are iconic examples of the latter. Its typically used to attract attention, either for hunting or to coax insects into visiting a plant and spreading its pollen or seeds around. Of about 120,000 described fungus species, around 100 are known to be bioluminescent; only a handful of these are native to India. This is likely due to the fact that there aren’t enough trained specialists to go out and look for new species and document those that have already been discovered, Karunarathna argues.
Bioluminescent fungi commonly grow on decaying wood and are able to feed on the lignin in plant debris (lignin is a structural component in the walls of plant cells, which gives them their stiffness). The largest genus of bioluminescent fungi we know of is the Mycena (bonnet mushrooms), and genetic studies of Mycena suggest that this trait evolved around 160 million years ago.
The paper “Roridomyces phyllostachydis (Agaricales, Mycenaceae), a new bioluminescent fungus from Northeast India” has been published in the journal Phytotaxa.
Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, one of the things that were most surprising about Avatar is the glowing plants that could be found all over the world of Pandora. Similar plants could soon be found on Earth, thanks to a new study.
Scientists found that it’s actually possible to create plants that produce their own visible luminescence, thanks to the fact that the bioluminescence found in some mushrooms is metabolically similar to the natural processes common among plants.
This means that the DNA obtained from the mushroom could be inserted into the plants, making them glow much brighter than previously possible, according to the group of researchers from the UK, Russia, and Austria.
The discovery could be used to create glowing flowers or other ornamental plants, and change the make-up of the plants that surround us, the team argued. It can also be used by scientists to learn more about the plants they study, watching the glow to see their inner workings.
“In the future this technology can be used to visualize activities of different hormones inside the plants over the lifetime of the plant in different tissues, absolutely non-invasively. It can also be used to monitor plant responses to various stresses and changes in the environment,” Karen Sarkisyan, lead-author, told The Guardian.
The new plants can produce more than a billion photons per minute, according to the researchers who created it. That is far brighter than any previous example, and the glow they obtained is more stable. The new findings will be commercialized soon in ornamental house plants by the companies Light Bio and Planta.
Designing new biological features is more complex than merely moving genetic parts from one organism to another, which has caused past attempts to create glowing parts to fail. All the genetic parts must metabolically integrate within the host and for most organisms the parts needed for bioluminescence are not all known.
The researchers unveiled the parts that sustain bioluminescence in mushrooms last year. Now, with the living light of an advanced multicellular organism fully defined, they were able to make glowing plants that are at least ten-fold brighter (as judging from illumination coming from leaves, roots, stems, and flowers).
Although mushrooms are not closely related to plants, the researchers discovered that the organic molecule at the center of the light emission from mushrooms is also used by plants when building cell walls, giving the scientists their opening to graft the needed genes. By dropping the DNA from the mushroom into the plants, they were able to create specimens that glowed ten times as bright, the researchers said. They are so bright that light could be seen coming from leaves, stems, roots, and flowers and captured using a normal smartphone camera, they claimed.
The researchers said that thanks to their finding even brighter plants could be developed in the future and that new features, such as changing brightness or color in response to people and surroundings could also be mixed in. But for that to happen there’s more work to be done.
“The challenge now is to figure out how to make this engineered bioluminescence responsive to specific environmental, developmental, chemical or pathogenic stimuli,” University of Cambridge professor John Carrr told The Guardian.
Drinking isn’t good for you, but watching parrots get drunk is both healthy and entertaining. Not for the parrots, though.
There’s no day like a weekend day — cause that’s when we get to party. But humans aren’t the only animals that like to abuse their systems with various chemicals. In fact, a lot of animals do it; and get into trouble afterward. We’ve seen the shenanigans that animals go through in love (and lust), some of which are amusingly similar to those we humans cause or experience. So let’s see whether our furry and feathered friends also mirror us in the bad choices we make on a night out on the town (spoiler: they do).
The Darwin Drinking Awards
Northern Australia is the only place on Earth that I know of which has three seasons: a wet season, a dry season, and a drunken parrot season.
Just before the wet season, roughly in mid-to-late December, the local Weeping Boer-bean trees (Schotia brachypetala) are flowering. This brings swarms of red-collared lorikeets to the area to feed on the nectar of the trees’ flowers. However, after a while, some of the birds start to sway a little bit — and then fall out of trees. Darwin locals report that the birds lack coordination and that they seemingly lose their ability to fly and sometimes even to walk. Vets say the birds act similar to drunken people. They also seem to experience disorientation, energy loss, and perhaps headaches, all very familiar hangover symptoms.
While the possibility of a virus affecting these birds hasn’t yet been ruled out, the event may have more to do with the trees — which are also known as the Drunken Parrot Tree, I’ll let you judge for yourself. So far, local animal caretakers and vets provide safe, quiet places for the parrots to recover — which can take months in some rare cases according to National Geographic — while providing sweetened porridge and fresh fruit. The prevailing theory is that the parrots get drunk off their tails on nectar and fruit fermented in the baking Australian heat.
Reindeer live in Siberia (in North America too, but they’re called caribou there). The hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria also lives in Siberia, among other places. And the reindeer like to get really, really high on the ‘shrooms during those long and dreary winter months.
Reindeer that partake of the mushrooms have been documented to act almost as if drunk, running around aimlessly, making strange noises, and twitching their heads.
“They have a desire to experience altered states of consciousness,” Huffington Post cites researcher Andrew Haynes, who studied the behavior in the wild. “For humans a common side-effect of mushrooms is the feeling of flying, so it’s interesting the legend about Santa’s reindeer is they can fly.”
He also adds that herdsmen drink the reindeer’s urine to get high themselves.
“Fly agaric is found across the northern hemisphere and has long been used by mankind for its psychotropic properties, but its use can be dangerous because it also contains toxic substances,” he explains for the Pharmaceutical Journal.
“Reindeer seem to metabolise these toxic elements without harm, while the main psychoactive constituents remain unmetabolised and are excreted in the urine. Reindeer herders in Europe and Asia long ago learnt to collect the reindeer urine for use as a comparatively safe source of the hallucinogen.”
Sharing, it seems, really is caring.
Wallabies are adorable, diminutive kangaroos native to Australia and New Guinea.
Opium poppy farmers on Tasmania (an island off the south Australian coast) have reported that wallabies will sometimes break into their fields to dine on the flowers, which are the raw material for prescription painkillers.
Although exactly which species of wallabies are responsible is still unknown, the animals have been seen eating poppies before running around in circles and eventually passing out, according to a BBC report. Lara Giddings, the attorney general for the island state of Tasmania even described the animals as being “high as a kite” and creating crop circles.
“The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles,” Lara Giddings told a parliamentary hearing on security for poppy crops. “Then they crash.”
“We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high.”
Rick Rockliff, a spokesman for poppy producer Tasmanian Alkaloids, told the BBC that these wallaby incursions aren’t very common, although other animals have been spotted “acting unusually” in the poppies.
Australia is a major producer of raw materials for the painkiller industry, supplying around half of the world’s (legally-grown) opium. And, it seems, the main supplier for wallabies as well.
Bees on a binge
Bees keep the world turning, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from functional alcoholism.
The bee nervous system is similar enough to that of humans for alcohol to have similar effects on them. In fact, researchers sometimes use bee colonies as models to test out the effects of alcohol intoxication in humans and other vertebrates. For example, a team of researchers at Ohio State University routinely gives bees ethanol — drinking alcohol — to see how it affects them. Unsurprisingly, they found that it affected their flying, walking, and grooming.
“Alcohol affects bees and humans in similar ways — it impairs motor functioning along with learning and memory processing,” Dr Julie Mustard, an entomology researcher at the university, explained to the BBC.
But bees seem in no way content to limit their day-drinking to the lab. Just last year, Australian Parliament’s head beekeeper Cormac Farrell explained that the bees, which could be seen sometimes dropping on the ground around the Australian House of Parliament in Canberra, are just really blitzed. Sadly for the bees, they can sometimes drink themselves to death, and the queens aren’t very understanding of them — they will post guards at the entrance of their hives to keep any ‘merry’ bees from getting in.
“As the weather heats up, the nectar in some Australian flowers will ferment, making the foragers drunk,” Farrell told The Canberra Times last year. “Usually this makes them a bit wobbly, and if they come back to the beehive drunk the guards will turn them away until they sober up.”
“The drunk bees are kept out of the hive to stop the honey from fermenting inside, which could hurt the whole colony,” he added.
Only introduced and exotic honeybees seem affected, with Farrell noting that he had not seen any drunk native bees, of which Australia can boast 2000 species.
So, are bees just the victims of excellent work ethic and fermenting sugar? It doesn’t appear that way — bees just seem to enjoy getting smashed hard. Charles Abramson of Ohio State University told Newscientist that while most animals need to be coaxed into drinking alcohol, “we can get [bees] to drink pure ethanol, and I know of no organism that drinks pure ethanol – not even a college student.”
A bee, he adds, will drink the equivalent of a human downing 10 liters of wine in a single sitting. Flawless work ethic indeed!
Puff puff porpoise
Dolphins… like to pass toxic pufferfish around to get high.
The behavior was first reported on by marine biologist Lisa Steiner in 1995. She was studying a group of rough-toothed dolphins roughly in the region of the Azores when she noticed that some of them were pushing an inflated pufferfish around and rubbing their faces against it. Which was an odd sight, as that pufferfish uses one of the most lethal substances on Earth, tetrodotoxin, to protect itself from, among others, dolphins. Later on, Steiner would hypothesize that the dolphins were only exposed to tiny amounts of tetrodotoxin, and this resulted in a high, not death. Which is an ideal outcome in my book.
It’s still unclear whether the dolphins are actually getting a chemical kick out of the pufferfish or if they’re just harassing the poor animal for sport. The main points of contention are that tetrodotoxin isn’t known to cross the brain-blood barrier, and that it’s extremely deadly — one pufferfish contains enough to kill 30 full-grown people. However, in episode two of the BBC One documentary film, “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod,” a group of dolphins was filmed hunting pufferfish and biting into it but not eating it, then sharing the fish with their mates.
So this one is still a bit up in the air. But no matter whether the fish is used as a drug or a simple toy, given how toxic it is, it’s definitely dangerous.
These are a few of the more unusual stories of animals binging, but they’re certainly not the only ones. Jaguars like to chew on the roots of yagé vines — a main component of the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca — and their diminutive cousins love catnip. And, well, humans are animals too. While it’s definitely a lot of fun reading about their shenanigans, hangovers aren’t, so enjoy your own real-life shenanigans in moderation.
Fungi are nature’s “Internet” — now, a team of researchers has mapped it.
Above ground and below ground, trees spread out far and wide, offering vital support for countless creatures that rely on their services — including ourselves. But trees don’t live by themselves in a vacuum — they also rely on fungi and bacteria that grow alongside them and offer important nutrients. These symbiotic partnerships evolved more than 500 million years ago and form the backbone of countless ecosystems. Researchers call it the “wood wide web”, a natural information superhighway.
Now, a new effort utilized machine learning algorithms on millions of direct observations from 1.1 million forest sites and 28,000 tree species to produce the first map of this network and gather crucial insights as to how species involved in this relationship flourish or perish.
Forests and microbes are symbiotically connected globally. Now, for the first time, we’re seeing how. Image credits: Sora Hasler.
Each tree in the database was associated with certain types of microbes. For instance, maple and cedar trees prefer a type of fungi called arbuscular mycorrhizae (AM), which drill into the tree roots and build small roots around them. Other trees, like oak and pine, are found alongside ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi, that build much larger networks. Meanwhile, plants such as legumes prefer bacteria that “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. Imagine all these connections neatly arranged into a giant database — that’s what researchers developed. But they didn’t stop there: they also implemented an algorithm that looks for correlations between these elements and environmental factors such as temperature, precipitation, and soil chemistry. Using this algorithm, they were able to extrapolate and fill in the gaps from places where they didn’t have any actual data, essentially predicting what type of fungi would live in what places.
The maps from this study will be made freely available, in hopes of helping other scientists include tree symbionts in their work. Image credits: Crowther lab.
The team produced three global maps, one for each type major type of symbiosis (EM fungi, AM fungi, and nitrogen-fixing). The thing is, we don’t really know all that much about how these connections impact mushroom and tree wellbeing, but we’re starting to understand that they can strongly impact the global carbon cycle and climate change.
“There’s only so many different symbiotic types and we’re showing that they obey clear rules,” said Brian Steidinger, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford and lead author of the paper. “Our models predict massive changes to the symbiotic state of the world’s forests – changes that could affect the kind of climate your grandchildren are going to live in.”
EM fungi, mostly present in temperate areas, are the ones that suck the most carbon and store it beneath the ground. Around 60% of the world’s trees are connected to this type of fungi. However, as temperatures rise, these fungi and their associated trees will decrease, giving way to AM fungi, which spew out carbon into the atmosphere. This will create yet another feedback loop, further accentuating climate change.
It’s possible that the map missed some significant elements, and it will certainly be refined in the future — particularly as it has been made freely available for researchers all around the world to work with. However, it represents the most detailed map of its kind — featuring an ungodly amount of data gathered from 70 countries, which will help us gain an unprecedented look into what is a vital mechanism not only for trees and fungi all around the world, but also for all the creatures depending on them. Yes, including us.
“There are more than 1.1 million forest plots in the dataset and every one of those was measured by a person on the ground. In many cases, as part of these measurements, they essentially gave the tree a hug,” said Steidinger. “So much effort – hikes, sweat, ticks, long days – is in that map.”
A new study found that a unique antioxidant present in mushrooms can prevent cognitive decline in the elderly, suggesting that mushrooms have a protective effect on the brain.
Image in public domain.
The six-year study found that seniors who ate more than 300 grams of cooked mushrooms a week were 50% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — a condition not quite as damaging as dementia, but which can make people forgetful, affecting their memory, language, and orientation.
Mushroom eaters (people who ate two portions of mushrooms per week) performed better in brain tests and were found to have overall faster brain processing speed. A portion was defined as three-quarters of a cup, or 300g (10.5oz).
“This correlation is surprising and encouraging. It seems that a commonly available single ingredient could have a dramatic effect on cognitive decline,” said Assistant Professor Lei Feng, the lead author of this work and a professor at the University of Singapore.
Mushrooms are one of the richest sources of ergothioneine (ET), an aminoacid which humans are unable to produce on their own and which appears to act as an antioxidant in preliminary research. Researchers suspect that ET is protecting the participants’ brains, but mushrooms also contain other nutrients and minerals, most notably vitamin D, selenium and spermidine — which protect neurons from damage. It’s unclear exactly what is the cause of the improved cognitive effects.
“We’re very interested in a compound called ergothioneine (ET),” said Dr Irwin Cheah, Senior Research Fellow at the NUS Department of Biochemistry. “ET is a unique antioxidant and anti-inflammatory which humans are unable to synthesise on their own. But it can be obtained from dietary sources, one of the main ones being mushrooms.”
The study focused on six mushrooms, commonly consumed in Singapore: golden, oyster, shiitake and white button mushrooms, as well as dried and canned mushrooms. However, it is likely that other mushrooms not included in the study also have similar beneficial effects, since generally, all mushrooms are rich in ET.
The study did not attempt to establish a causal relationship, it merely highlighted a correlation between mushroom consumption and a reduced risk of cognitive decline. It also had a fairly small sample size of 600 seniors living in Singapore. These seniors were followed over the course of 6 years, asked about how often they consumed mushrooms, and then subjected to a thorough physical and neurological exam.
Researchers now want to carry a randomized controlled trial with the pure compound of ET and other plant-based ingredients, to determine which compounds are having the beneficial effects. Such interventional studies will lead to more robust conclusion on causal relationship and will enable researchers to develop dietary recommendations for reducing the risk of brain and cognitive decline.
The study “The Association between Mushroom Consumption and Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Community-Based Cross-Sectional Study in Singapore” by Feng et al. was published in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease DOI:10.3233/JAD-180959
What do you get when you 3-D print cyanobacteria onto button mushrooms? That would be an electrical generator, according to mechanical engineers at the Stevens Institute of Technology who mixed the two, along with a graphene nanoribbon network that carries current. They call this system ‘the bionic mushroom’.
Credit: Sudeep Joshi/Stevens Institute of Technology.
Cyanobacteria –- single-celled organisms that are also known as blue algae –- use the sun’s energy, water, and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen by photosynthesis. About 2.6 billion years ago, cyanobacteria changed the state of the atmosphere forever by pumping oxygen, gradually transforming the planet from a hellish wasteland into a sprawling oasis of life. Without this transformation, known as the Great Oxidation Event, there would be no insects, no fish, and certainly no humans.
Cyanobacteria are also known among bio-engineers for their ability to generate small jolts of electricity, making them attractive prospects for energy generation. In 2016, researchers at Binghamton University used cyanobacteria to make a bio-solar panel and now researchers in New Jersey have integrated the microbes with nanomaterials and mushrooms to generate electricity.
“In this case, our system – this bionic mushroom – produces electricity,” said Manu Mannoor, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens. “By integrating cyanobacteria that can produce electricity, with nanoscale materials capable of collecting the current, we were able to better access the unique properties of both, augment them, and create an entirely new functional bionic system.”
White button mushrooms are not only delicious, but they also host a rich microbiota that cyanobacteria can munch on. When placed on the cap of white button mushrooms, the cyanobacteria were exposed to optimal levels of nutrients, moisture, pH, and temperature. Experiments showed that the setup generated small amounts of electricity and lasted for several days longer compared to silicone and dead mushrooms used as controls.
“The mushrooms essentially serve as a suitable environmental substrate with advanced functionality of nourishing the energy-producing cyanobacteria,” postdoctoral fellow Sudeep Joshi said in a statement. “We showed for the first time that a hybrid system can incorporate an artificial collaboration, or engineered symbiosis, between two different microbiological kingdoms.”
Densely packed cyanobacteria (green) achieved via 3D printing increases electricity-generating behavior Credit: Sudeep Joshi, Stevens Institute of Technology.
To collect the electricity, the researchers 3-D printed an “electronic ink” made up of graphene nanoribbons that form a branched network. The cyanobacteria were also 3-D printed as “bio-ink” onto the mushroom’s cap in a spiral pattern that intersected with the graphene ribbons. This way, electrons traveled through the outer membranes of the microbes to the conductive network. When light was shone on the mushroom, photosynthesis was activated leading to the generation of photocurrent — essentially this is another example of a bio-solar panel.
The amount of electricity generated by the ‘bionic mushroom’ varies depending on the density and alignment with which the bacteria is packed, the authors reported in the journal Nano Letters. The more densely packed the bacteria, the more electricity they produce, which is where 3-D printing came in handy.
“With this work, we can imagine enormous opportunities for next-generation bio-hybrid applications,” Mannoor said. “For example, some bacteria can glow, while others sense toxins or produce fuel. By seamlessly integrating these microbes with nanomaterials, we could potentially realise many other amazing designer bio-hybrids for the environment, defence, healthcare and many other fields.”
People sometimes use the phrase “tastes like chicken” to describe the flavor of an unusual food. It’s in such common usage that the phrase has become somewhat of a cliché. But some weird foods really do taste like chicken. Such is the case ofLaetiporus sulphureus— the Chicken of the Woods.
Laetiporus sulphureus was first described as Boletus sulphureus by French mycologist Pierre Bulliard in 1789. It has had many synonyms and was finally given its current name in 1920 by American mycologist William Murrill. Laetiporus means “with bright pores” and sulphureus means the color of sulfur.
Also called the chicken mushroom, or the chicken fungus, Laetiporus is an easily recognizable, brightly colored fungus that is often found in clusters. The fungus grows in large brackets on trees, mostly oak, that are either living or decaying, causing a reddish brown heart-rot of wood. If the mushrooms are seen fruiting, you can be sure that the fungus has already attacked the tree.
They’re pretty huge, growing 2 to 20 inches across. Some of the mushroom brackets can weigh up to 100 pounds (45 kg).
The Chicken of the Woods can also be found growing frequently on eucalyptus, yew, cherry wood, sweet chestnut, and willow.
The top surface of the Chicken of the Woods is bright orange and tends to lighten in color near the edges. This fungus has no gills, however, its bright yellow undersurface is covered with tiny pores. With age, the color of the mushroom dulls from bright yellows and oranges to yellow and then pure white. Older specimens tend to become brittle, as well.
Laetiporus sulphureus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
People who’ve tried cooking the Chicken of the Woods describe it as “succulent”, with a mild flavor. At first bite, you might find the taste oddly familiar, perhaps reminding you of chicken, crab, or lobster. The mushroom is also high in protein (about 14 grams per 100 grams, which is similar to quinoa) and you feel it. And even its sinewy texture is oh-so-similar to soft, juicy, tender chicken meat. It can make a fine chicken substitute as long as you make sure to fully cook the mushroom, making it a great ingredient for any vegetarian diet.
But although it’s considered a delicacy, in some parts of the world, like Germany and some regions of the USA, Laetiporus is seen as a pest, since it causes brown rot — a type of tree decay. Historically, this fungus was known to damage the wooden ships of the British Naval Fleet.
A warning for mushroom and chicken aficionados: the Laetiporus has been known, albeit in very small percentages, to cause allergic reactions. They’re pretty mild nevertheless, like swollen lips or in rare cases nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and disorientation. So be picky and very wary of what you eat in the woods — especially since there are more than just one species of Laetiporus in North America. For instance, Laetiporus huroniensis, which is almost identical to Laetiporus sulphureus, seems to cause poisoning more often than L. sulphureus, and may also sometimes interbreed with the latter, making it even more difficult to distinguish the two species. L. huroniensis only grows in northeastern North America and seems to love conifers. In western North America, Laetiporus sulphureus doesn’t naturally occur at all, however, two lookalikes do: Laetiporus gilbertsonii (on eucalyptus) and Laetiporus conifericola (on conifers). Both are known to be implicated in poisonings.
You can contact your local mycological society to find out if there are mushroom foragers in your area (mushroom hunters). Alternatively, you might be able to purchase some Chicken of the Woods from a local farmers market or specialty store.
NOTE: DO NOT eat any mushroom unless you are absolutely certain of its identity.
It’s an extremely improbable finding, which took researchers by surprise.
The world’s oldest fossil mushroom was preserved in limestone, an extraordinarily rare event, researchers say. Credits: Photo by Jared Thomas / Drawing by Danielle Ruffatto.
Some 115 million years ago, this mushroom began an improbable journey: from a lagoon on the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, it fell into a river, traveled around for a bit, and then got stuck in sediment, becoming a mineralized fossil preserved in the limestone in northeast Brazil, before being ultimately discovered by paleontologists and identified by a University of Illinois researcher.
Fungi are ecologically diverse, geographically widespread, organisms, but their fossil record is quite scarce — for a pretty straightforward reason. In order for anything to become fossilized, very specific conditions need to be achieved. Fungi are also soft, don’t have any bones or hard parts, so the fossilizing conditions are even more specific and rare.
“Most mushrooms grow and are gone within a few days,” said Illinois Natural History Survey paleontologist Sam Heads, who discovered the mushroom when digitizing a collection of fossils from the Crato Formation of Brazil. “The fact that this mushroom was preserved at all is just astonishing. When you think about it, the chances of this thing being here – the hurdles it had to overcome to get from where it was growing into the lagoon, be mineralized and preserved for 115 million years – have to be minuscule,” he said.
Before this discovery, the oldest mushroom fossil had been preserved in amber and had been discovered by Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) mycologist Andrew Miller, who is also a co-author of the new report. Miller says that finding mineralized fossils of mushrooms is even rare than finding them in amber. In fact, this is the first mushroom mineralized fossil ever found — and just ten had been found in total before. Before, the all unique amber inclusions ranging from mid-Cretaceous (90 million years) to Early Miocene in age (22 million years).
“They were enveloped by a sticky tree resin and preserved as the resin fossilized, forming amber,” Heads said. “This is a much more likely scenario for the preservation of a mushroom, since resin falling from a tree directly onto the forest floor could readily preserve specimens. This certainly seems to have been the case, given the mushroom fossil record to date.”
The fossil was uncovered in the Araripe Basin, in northeast Brazil, in a limestone layer called the Crato Formation. Image credits: Danielle Ruffatto.
The mushroom itself was pretty small, measuring about 5 centimeters (2 inches) tall. Paleontologists have studied it using electron microscopy and found that it had gills under its cap, technically called lamella. Gills are used by mushrooms to disperse spores and can be used to identify species.
The team named it Gondwanagaricites magnificus, a combination of Gondwana, the ancient supercontinent, the Greek word agarikon, “a mushroom.” The “ites” suffix indicates a fossil. There’s still much we don’t know about the evolution of mushrooms, particularly because the fossil record is so scarce; so this significantly pushes the boundary of our knowledge.
“Fungi evolved before land plants and are responsible for the transition of plants from an aquatic to a terrestrial environment,” Miller said. “Associations formed between the fungal hyphae and plant roots. The fungi shuttled water and nutrients to the plants, which enabled land plants to adapt to a dry, nutrient-poor soil, and the plants fed sugars to the fungi through photosynthesis. This association still exists today.”
Scanning electron micrographs of the gills of Gondwanagaricites magnificus. Image credits: Heads et al, 2017.
Journal Reference: Sam W. Heads , Andrew N. Miller, J. Leland Crane, M. Jared Thomas, Danielle M. Ruffatto, Andrew S. Methven, Daniel B. Raudabaugh, Yinan Wang — The oldest fossil mushroom.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178327
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.
A team of NASA researchers has developed the first ever method for identifying and studying underground forest fungi from outer space, providing information that will help us better understand how forests will develop.
Mycorrhizal fungi (white/yellow) trading nutrients for carbon with tree roots (brown). Credits: Indiana University / NASA
Mycorrhizal fungi (underground fungus) are more similar to a city network than to individual organisms. They are complex intertwined networks that can spread for miles and miles in the search for nutrients. You can find such a fungal network under most of the world’s forests, and there is a special type of relationship between it and trees. The fungus trades nutrients that trees need with the sugars that the trees make during photosynthesis, in an almost symbiotic fashion.
“Nearly all tree species associate with only one of two types of mycorrhizal fungi,” explained coauthor Richard Phillips of Indiana University, Bloomington.
The thing is, this type of relationship is extremely vulnerable in the face of climate change. Knowing which type of fungus is predominant will help researchers predict where forests will thrive and where they will falter. Creating this type of map is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor, and only works at small scales. With the technique NASA developed, it works much faster, cheaper, and on much larger scales. Joshua Fisher, who also authored the study, found a way to detect this hidden network using satellite images.
The method relies on a spectral analysis; every tree species has its own “spectral fingerprint”, it absorbs and reflects light in a specific way, across all wavelengths of the light spectrum. Using satellite images of forest canopies, Fisher’s group probed whether they could identify any patterns in the spectral signatures of tree species associated with one type of fungus that did not appear in species associated with the other type.
“Individual tree species have unique spectral fingerprints, but we thought the underlying fungi could be controlling them as groups,” he said.
They applied the technique to four U.S. forest research plots that are part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Forest Global Earth Observatory. The area includes 130,000 trees across 77 species, and the tree species associated with each type of fungus had already been mapped from the ground. The team then analyzed images of the forest canopies taken by the NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat-5 satellite from 2008 to 2011 in many different ways, looking for similarities with the fungus pattern. They found different patterns in different times of the year establishing timing sequences related to each type of fungus, correctly predicting fungus evolution (and implicitly, forest evolution) in 77% of all cases. Fisher concludes:
“That these below-ground agents manifest themselves in changes in the forest canopies is significant. This allows, for the first time, some light to be shed on their hidden processes.”
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.
The tropical forests of Northeaster Brazil have their own nightlight: a peculiar mushroom called Neonothopanus gardneri that glows in the dark. Like a street light, it’s tuned to activate its bioluminescence only in the dark, first in the twilight then peaking at about 10 PM. Researchers at Dartmouth College in the US and the University of São Paulo in Brazil have now fond out what this strange behavior is all about: ‘candy’ for insects.
Neonothopanus gardneri in action. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
The Brazilian variety isn’t alone. According to Jay Dunlap, a geneticist and molecular biologist at Dartmouth’s medical school, there are 71 discovered species of glow in the dark mushrooms. This might seem like a lot, but considering there are about 5 million mushroom species in the world, these lonesome fungi are quite rare, nevermind spectacular. The bioluminescence relies on chemical processes inside the mushrooms’ cells which can show up right about anywhere: the fruiting body, the thready web-like mycelium and even in dispersing spores.
Many of the bioluminescent fungi time their glow around the evening, so as not to waste the energy for nothing during daytime when the sun’s rays conceal the glow. This suggests that this phenomenon is no evolutionary fluke. What’s its purpose, though? The researchers suspected the glow in the dark attracts insects, which like we all know to our own annoyance are highly attracted to light. Fungi of course do not eat insects; they exploit them in another way: to spread their spores among the forest.
To test this hypothesis, the team made some fake glow in the dark mushrooms by placing LED lights underneath them. Sticky tape was put on the mushrooms to trap the insects. At the end of the day, they counted the number of trapped insects by the fake fungi compared to normal fungi, with no LED lights or bioluminescence capability. A lot more flies and other jungle insects were found in the sticky tape from the fake mushrooms, according to the paper published in Current Biology.
What’s interesting is that the mushrooms peaked at exactly 10 PM, suggesting a highly accurate internal biological clock regulates the bioluminescence. Brazilian researcher Etelvino José Henriques Bechara jokingly says “If he lived [among the mushrooms], he could use the light intensity to tell time.”
You just have to applaud the researcher that study mushrooms growing on horse dung to see what medicinal properties they have. Microbiologists molecular biologists at ETH Zurich and the University of Bonn have discovered a new agent in fungi that kills bacteria. The substance they found in the mushroom is called copsin. Copsin has a similar effect to antibiotics, but belongs to a different class of biochemicals – it is a protein, whereas antibiotics are generally non-organic compounds.
The scientists isolated the new active compound from the grey shag that grows on horse dung. (Photo: Andreas Gminder / mushroomobserver.org / CC BY-NC-SA 3)
“Fungi and bacteria compete with an arsenal of secreted molecules for their ecological niche. This repertoire represents a rich and inexhaustible source for antibiotics and fungicides. Antimicrobial peptides are an emerging class of fungal defense molecules that are promising candidates for pharmaceutical applications.”, researchers explain in the study.
Coprinopsis cinerea is a common species of mushroom; you’ve probably seen it yourself, especially if you spent time on farmlands or in the mountains. But it’s quite an interesting species as well; its genome was sequenced in 2010, and biologists consider it an important model organism for studying fungal sex and mating types, mushroom development, and the evolution of multicellularity of fungi.
When they initially started their research, scientists wanted to see how the fungus and different bacteria interact and affect each other’s growth, but they quickly found that the fungus kills of certain kinds of bacteria. Further research indicated that it is the copsin in the mushrooms which kills the bacteria, and the research took a different turn.
Copsin is a defensin, a class of small proteins produced by many organisms to combat microorganisms that cause disease. While its clear that the substance does have antibacterial properties, it’s not clear if it will be incorporated in an antibiotic any time soon. Markus Aebi, Professor of Mycology and the team’s leader said:
“Whether copsin will one day be used as an antibiotic in medicine remains to be seen. This is by no means certain, but it cannot be ruled out either,” he says.
The three-dimensional structure studied by ETH researchers exhibits the compact form of copsin. (Source: Essig A et al. JBC 2014)
For him, copsin raises other intriguing questions. For starters, why is it that fungus have been using copsin successfully against bacteria for millions of years, while human-used antibiotics have already led to resistant germs in a few decades? What makes copsin different to current antibiotics? The questions are highly challenging.
“Fungi have internal instructions on how to use these substances without resulting in selection of resistant bacteria. How to decode these instructions is an intriguing problem for basic research,” explains Aebi.
Andreas Essig, a postdoc in Aebi’s group and lead author of the study is more interested in the potential medicinal use of the substance. He has already registered potential applications of copsin for patent approval.
“Copsin is an exceptionally stable protein,” says Essig. Proteins are generally susceptible to protein-degrading enzymes and high temperatures. Copsin is an exception because it also remains stable when heated to a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius for several hours or when subjected to protein-degrading enzymes.
Researchers believe that it’s the protein’s remarkable 3D structure that gives it such a great resistance. In addition to its potential use as an antibiotic, copsin might also be used in the food industry, because it kills many pathogens including Listeria, a type of bacteria that can cause severe food poisoning, especially in raw milk cheeses and dried meats.
Journal Reference: Andreas Essig, Daniela Hofmann, Daniela Münch, Savitha Gayathri, Markus Künzler, Pauli T. Kallio, Hans-Georg Sahl, Gerhard Wider, Tanja Schneider and Markus Aebi. Copsin, a novel peptide-based fungal antibiotic interfering with the peptidoglycan synthesis. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M114.599878
These truly wonderful photographs were taken by Steve Axford. Let’s leave Steve describe himself:
I live in the Northern Rivers area of NSW and I am doing essentially what I like. What I like is photography and exploring the world. The world, for me, is dominated by living things and the planet we live on . My photography is an avenue into exploring this world. My interests cover everything from micro fungi to volcanoes, though more of my time now is spent with the fungi than the volcanoes.
Mycena chlorophos – a bioluminiscent mushroom.
The mushrooms he photographs look like they are not from this galaxy – let alone from this planet! Axford says that most of the mushrooms seen here were photographed around his home and are sub-tropical fungi, but many were also taken in Victoria and Tasmania and are classified as temperate fungi.
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. Recently I have started to take time lapse videos of mushrooms, and other things, growing. This adds another dimension to an already fascination world and sometimes allows a glimpse into the world of interactions between different life forms.
Big Scrub Loop.
Cyptotrama aspratum or Gold tuft
Mycena aff. adonis
Mycena aff adonis
He made it his mission to track down some of the world’s strangest and brilliantly diverse mushrooms and take fantastic pictures of them.
Mauve splitting waxcap
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.
A team of scietists from the University of Copenhagen have found a mushroom shaped animal which they believe doesn’t fit in any known subdivision of the animal kingdom. Such a situation has happened only a few times in the past 100 years.
Researchers aren’t exactly sure where to fit it, but they have a pretty good idea. It’s a multicellular organism, probably related to the jellyfish. What’s even more interesting about them is that they are very similar to strange and poorly understood organisms which inhabited the Earth between 635 and 540 million years ago – in what is called the Ediacaran period. The Ediacaran fauna has is also highly debated and not yet fitted into a clear category of life.
Measuring only a few millimetres in size, the animals consist of a flattened disc and a stalk with a mouth on the end.
The samples were obtained in 1986, over 20 years ago. It’s not uncommon for samples to reach this old age before being thoroughly analyzed, and it’s one of the reasons why the organisms are so hard to classify. If someone were to take newer samples, those would almost certainly prove easier to classify. The samples were preserved in alcohol, which destroys DNA and makes DNA testing somewhere between very difficult and impossible.
“Finding something like this is extremely rare, it’s maybe only happened about four times in the last 100 years,” said co-author Jorgen Olesen from the University of Copenhagen. “We think it belongs in the animal kingdom somewhere; the question is where.”
“What we can say about these organisms is that they do not belong with the bilateria,” said Dr Olesen.
Bilateria are animals with bilateral symmetry, i.e. they have a front and a back end, as well as an upside and downside, and therefore a left and a right. In contrast, radially symmetrical animals like jellyfish have a topside and downside, but no front and back. These new animals could easily be a new branch in the tree of life or an intermediate between two different animal phyla.
Olesen et al, 2014.
Researchers are asking others to look through their collections and see if they have any other samples, which would perhaps be suitable for DNA analysis.
“We published this paper in part as a cry for help,” said Dr Olesen. “There might be somebody out there who can help place it.”
Journal Reference: Jean Just, Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristensen, Jørgen Olesen. Dendrogramma, New Genus, with Two New Non-Bilaterian Species from the Marine Bathyal of Southeastern Australia (Animalia, Metazoa incertae sedis) – with Similarities to Some Medusoids from the Precambrian Ediacara. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102976
Example of PUR-A plates initially used to screen for polyurethane degrading activity after 2 weeks of fungal growth. (c) Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Yale University
A group of students from Yale University, along with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, were on a routine trip to the Amazon’s Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, when they stumbled across a peculiar type of mushroom capable of eating polyurethane plastics. If successfully applied to landfills clogged with millions of metric tons of garbage plastics, this could have a potentially critical role in cleansing the environment.
Polyurethane is a synthetic polymer which is makes up most of today’s plastics. Although, plastic is recyclable in certain degree, most of the world’s plastic wastes are simply dumped in giant landfills where it simply remains there indefinitely, since it’s not biodegradable.
Pestalotiopsis microspora was showed to to have the most ability to survive while consuming and degrading polyurethane in aerobic and anaerobic (oxygen-free) environments, like those found in waste landfills. Initially the scientists collected 59 fungi endophytic organism, and after a lab analysis they selected Pestalotiopsis microspora as the most effective fungus , by observing the rate of plastic degradation.
“Polyurethane seemed like it couldn’t interact with the earth’s normal processes of breaking down and recycling material. That’s just because it hadn’t met the right mushroom yet,” the authors write in the paper.
Yes! This remarkable fungus can survive dieting exclusively on Polyurethane, without any kind of oxygen. It’s been proven to work extremely well under lab conditions, however, it’s yet to been tested on massive landfills, but there doesn’t seem to be any indication that it should work. The same paper notes more and more plastic is being produced every year and cites 2006′s production at 245 million tons. How much of these plastics will end up in the Earth’s soil? Super-fungus to the rescue!