Why mycology studies are growing on us
Author: Catherine Turnbull
Artist: Laila Kandil
Editor: Miranda Hitchens
When we think of fungus, we normally think of the mushrooms we eat, mildew in poorly ventilated bathrooms, or that pesky mould that thrives on the forgotten bread at the back of the kitchen cupboard. However, there is a lot more to fungus than its association with damp and out of date food. One of the largest organisms on earth is a fungus, more specifically, the Armillaria ostoyae honey fungus, spanning 2,385 acres in total. There are millions of different types of fungi – all evolutionarily distinct from animals and plants – enough to form their own broad kingdom whereby 90% of species are thought to be yet unidentified. There is so much we don’t understand about fungi, yet the more we learn, the more we realise how dependent we are upon them.
Fungi play an essential role in the ecosystem, by decomposing and recycling dead material, replenishing nutrients back to the soil for other organisms to thrive upon. Mycorrhiza fungi have developed a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, meaning that the fungi and plant roots both perform functions that are beneficial to each other’s survival. These fungi grow around the plant’s roots, by helping it retain water, whilst the plant offers food sources to the fungus. However, we have interfered with these delicately balanced ecosystems via unsustainable agriculture practices and by overusing fungicides. This has removed advantageous fungi for these plants, creating anti-fungal-resistant fungi which harms the harvest we grow.
In the past, fungi have been responsible for many famines, killing the crops our ancestors relied upon, leading to the fall of empires over the last millenium. A fungus called Ergot, which can infest rye crops, caused an outbreak of poisoning in 1951 within a French village named Pont Saint-Esprit. The villagers experienced vivid hallucinations and insomnia, and a few deaths were recorded after the consumption of flour containing this parasitic fungus, due to the presence of the lysergic acid derivatives which the LSD hallucinogen is synthesised from.
Other parasitic fungi include one which uses mind control over ants. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is known to make ants behave like zombies, rendering them completely helpless under the fungi’s jurisdiction. After the fungus infects the ants with its spores, the fungus grows inside the ant’s body, taking up the space where its organs used to be. The ant then climbs to an optimal height for the fungus to release spores, which burst out from the unfortunate ant’s body, ready to infect yet another unsuspecting host. This one-way relationship is clearly devastating to the ant, but is an indication of how sophisticated some fungal species can be. We have now harnessed the lethal tactics of some fungi to use to our own advantage. A parasitic species named Beauveria bassiana is being utilised as a biopesticide which is much less harmful to the environment. The same can’t be said for the insects that fall prey to this fungus.
In addition to their essential roles in ecosystems, there are many medical benefits that fungi have provided us with. The first ever antibiotic was first discovered back in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, after a few of his petri dishes were seen to be growing mould which prevented the growth of the bacteria he was culturing. The fungus was later isolated and purified, producing penicillin. Fungi have also shown uses as cancer therapeutics, one of which is Griseofulvin, an anti-fungal product produced by the Penicillium species. Cancer cells are rapidly dividing cells that avoid the usual cell constraints put in place to prevent uncontrolled cell division. Griseofulvin can stop tumour cells from proliferating by preventing cell division through repressing microtubule dynamics, the backbone of cell transport and support, that are necessary for the cells to divide.
However, fungi aren’t just a solution to physical ailments. Some mental illnesses may benefit from fungal treatment, particularly severe depression via the use of a substance found in magic mushrooms known as psilocybin. This psychedelic acts on the 5-HT2A serotonin receptors, which can help treat depression resistant to antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Since SSRIs can lead to tolerance over extended periods of use, psilocybin may be the answer to treating SSRI-resistant depression. Clinical trials have highlighted the benefits of using psilocybin to treat major depressive disorder (MDD), as it is thought to stimulate neurogenesis, which increases the production of new neurons, reducing the symptoms of MDD in some patients.
Fungi may also help alleviate the impact that the meat industry has on global greenhouse emissions. Quorn, a vegetarian alternative to meat, is made from fungi. This is an eco-friendly alternative to meat, producing a smaller carbon footprint than its meat industry counterparts. It has also been recently discovered that there are even fungi that can break down plastic. Discovered by Samantha Jenkins at Biohm, a fungus was found to have digested a plastic sponge within the jar it was contained in. This suggests that fungi could be answer to the mountains of plastic waste generated each year at an alarming and unsustainable rate. Other than plastic contamination, we have further contributed to environmental destruction by oil spills which fungal species have also been documented to help solve in a form of bioremediation. Thus, fungi could be able to support us through the increasing number of environmental issues we will face over the next few years.
Fungi are clearly incredible, ubiquitous, and are completely underrated organisms which perform a diverse array of roles within the ecosystem, by which all species rely upon. Understanding more about the very few species we have discovered will provide vast insights into future medical therapeutics, aid recovery from our plastic pollution epidemic and provide possible advances in supplying enough food for our ever-growing global population. Growing from an unsuspecting niche, mycology studies have now branched out into mainstream scientific research, providing future solutions to many of our human-made problems.