Hunting for "zombie mushrooms" that could save lives – and the planet – CNN


He studies the soil, the trees and their roots in search of mushrooms, because long walks like these are really part of his job. He regularly ventures in the hope of discovering new species of mushrooms hidden in the mud or high up in the trees.

"We want to collect as many different species of fungi as possible," said Landvik, a mycologist – a mushroom scientist – at the biotechnology company Novozymes. "Diversity is really the key word for everything we do".

Organisms have a plethora of applications that can benefit humanity in the production of food and alcohol, drugs, biofuels, detergents and even a famous childhood toy: LEGO.

Mushrooms are unique beings, explained Landvik. "They are so different from the plants and they are so different from the animals: they are their kingdom, the evolution of the mushrooms has radiated in many different directions, they are really, really, incredible".

The best estimate is that there are as many as 3.8 million species of fungi all over the world – although only about 144,000 were discovered, according to the State of the World report of this year, compiled by the staff members of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and several others.

New ones are found looking for wooded areas, collecting soil samples and returning samples to the laboratory to be studied, says Landvik.

But the real ability is to understand how they work.

In nature, mushrooms are not able to move, so they compete against other fungi or bacteria for resources and, in doing so, produce toxic chemicals. In some cases, these chemicals have been useful for man.

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Once the samples reach the laboratory, says Landvik, they are grown inside a Petri dish and cut into pieces, which are then placed in an Erlenmeyer flask with a nutritious liquid such as minerals and vitamins and a source of carbon to help the mushrooms grow.

Mushrooms grow by secreting enzymes – proteins that catalyze or accelerate chemical reactions – that are captured by the liquid inside the flask, allowing them to be studied in depth.

Thousands of fungi are being studied before researchers encounter one that could have an application, Landvik said.

It's like a "lottery ticket", he says, because every discovery could turn out to be "something that can make a difference in the world, something we can make a greener industry, and so on".

For example, one of Landvik's colleagues found an enzyme that can be used to reduce the formation of chemical acrylamide, which is formed when starchy food is cooked or fried and can be carcinogenic. Looking for a database for homologous gene sequences he found sequences for asparaginase, also the name of the enzyme, and soon he saw that many fungi contain this enzyme. One of them became Acrylaway, a solution that reduces the formation of acrylamide in food products processed at high temperatures, which according to the company can reduce the formation of acrylamide up to 95%.
More famous is the discovery of penicillin in 1928, discovered when Alexander Fleming was selecting his Petri dishes after a holiday and saw that a mass of mold had grown with a limpid area that surrounded it, later found as a strain of Notricum of Penicillium.

The way we look for useful enzymes 90 years later is still in serendipity.

Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928.

'Bad puppeteer & # 39;

Tom Prescott, a researcher at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, UK, also notes the many useful mushroom applications.

"In general, the three big themes are maybe medicine, biotechnology and, in the broadest sense … mushrooms are really good for eating," he explained, in the Kew mushroom, a large room full of rows of boxes containing 1.25 million specimens of mushrooms from all over the world, including specimens collected by John Ray, Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt.

Tom Prescott in the fungarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, which contains about 1.25 million specimens of fungi.

People are discovering mushrooms on an annual basis, said Prescott at CNN. "That's all, from the mushrooms that you could see with the naked eye up to the microscopic fungi that you might not know were there, but we detect them using DNA."

Some famous examples of medical applications are lovastatin of drugs that reduces cholesterol, produced by the fungus Aspergillus terreus, or a vaccine against hepatitis B produced with yeast.

The fingolimod of the drug – used to treat multiple sclerosis of autoimmune disease – is derived from a captivating mushroom "zombi", Isaria sinclairii, which invades an insect, takes it and eventually behaves like an "evil puppeteer", controlling the body and insect behavior to perform tasks which are beneficial for the fungus, said Prescott, holding a canned mushroom sample in his hand.

Meanwhile, the insect is kept alive, "so it's really creepy," he said. "It is essential that the fungus does not kill the insect initially, but keeps it alive, which is why it produces an immunosuppressive substance". This chemical is the miriocin, which also suppresses the human immune system.

Fingolimod, a drug for multiple sclerosis, derived from chemicals produced by the Isaria synceryris insect invader fungus.

"A lot of fundamental biochemistry and even immunology are surprisingly shared between insects and humans," he explained.

Mushrooms are also useful for converting one chemical into another, as in the production of vitamin B tablets.

There has been a competition between human and fungal chemicals on which it is best to produce these pills, and mushrooms have proved to be a cheaper option, said Prescott.

A Cordyceps mushroom invades a cricket to grow.

Save the environment

About half of all commercially used enzymes are derived from fungi, Shauna M. McKelvey and Richard A. Murphy write in "Fungi: Biology and Applications". The book cites proteases and enzymatic amylases used in detergent preparations as the most significant industrial application of enzymes.
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The use of enzymes in detergents dates back to 1988. The lipase, derived from the fungus Thermomyces lanuginosus, is effective in removing grease stains from clothes.
Most detergents contain various enzymes, such as proteases, amylases, cellulases and lipases, to improve efficacy and allow washing at lower temperatures.

Mushrooms are also used to keep fresh clothing.

Mushrooms are natural degraders of waste, said Prescott. In forests, they break down the leaf material by producing enzymes called cellulase. "It happens that if you add cellulase to the washing of powders, it crunches the tiny cotton threads of cotton fabrics, and this kind of crunching, and it gives the appearance of cotton look more new than it actually is. "

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In September, the fungus Aspergillus tubingensis was discovered in Pakistan. A team of 100 scientists reported that it could break down plastics such as polyester polyurethane, often used in refrigerator insulation, probably in weeks instead of years, potentially making it a key player in the fight against the problem of plastic waste in the world.

Prescott believes that the ultimate goal would be to create mushroom-like plastic materials – which can then be analyzed by fungi. It is not clear if this is possible, but "this is what makes it really exciting," he added.

Mushroom in agriculture

Another way to reduce pollution is to add enzymes to feed, helping animals break down nutrients such as phosphates, which farmers add to improve the health and growth of animal bones.

A fungal enzyme, phytase, breaks down these difficult chemicals and is particularly useful for some phosphate-containing molecules that can not be digested by animals. When excreted, the phosphates can enter the water courses, where they cause bacterial growth. This also consumes oxygen in the water, damaging the aquatic ecosystem, he said Prescott.

Landvik explained that adding phytases to free phosphates from feed and helping animals absorb this essential nutrient also reduces costs for farmers and environmental pollution.

He believes that mushroom enzymes are the key to making a number of industries more sustainable, replacing some industrial steps.

"And if you have a mechanical or chemical shift in the industry that can often be replaced by an enzyme that can do the same, but with less impact on the environment."



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