The & # 39; zombie fungi & # 39; saving lives – and the planet



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She studies the soil, the trees and her roots in search of fungi, because long walks like these are actually part of her job. She regularly ventures in the hope of discovering new species of fungi hidden deep in the ground or tall among the trees.

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

The organisms have a myriad of applications that can benefit mankind in the production of food and alcohol, drugs, biofuels, detergents and even a famous childhood toy: LEGO.

Fungi are unique beings, Landvik explained. "They are so different from plants, and they are so different from animals, they are their own realm, the evolution of fungi has spread in many different directions.

The best estimate is that there are about 3.8 million species of fungi worldwide – though only about 144,000 have been discovered, according to this year's State of the World Fungi report compiled by Royal Botanical Gardens officials , Kew and several others.

New ones are found by searching forested areas, collecting soil samples and bringing the samples back to the laboratory being studied, says Landvik.

But the real skill is to understand how they work.

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

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Once the samples arrive in the laboratory, Landvik says, they are grown inside a petri dish and cut into pieces, which are put in a flask with a liquid of nutrients such as minerals and vitamins and a source of carbon to help fungi growing.

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

Thousands of fungi are studied before researchers come across one that might have an application, Landvik said.

It's like a "lottery ticket," she says, since each discovery may reveal "something that can make a difference in the world, something we can make a greener industry possible, 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 forms when starchy foods are cooked or fried and may be carcinogenic. When searching in a database of homologous gene sequences, she found sequences for asparaginase, also the name of the enzyme, and soon realized that many fungi contain this enzyme. One of them has become Acrylaway, a solution that reduces the formation of acrylamide in food products processed at high temperatures, which the company says can reduce the formation of acrylamide by up to 95%.
More famous is the discovery of penicillin in 1928, discovered when Alexander Fleming was separating his Petri dishes after a holiday and saw a mold bubble have grown with a light zone around it, later considered a lineage of Penicillium notatum.

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

Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928.

& # 39; Bad master of the puppets & # 39;

Tom Prescott, a research leader at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, UK, also notes the many useful applications of fungi.

"Generally speaking, the three major topics may be remedies, biotechnology, and in the broadest sense … fungi are really good to eat," he explained, standing at Kew's funeral home, a large room full of rows of boxes containing 1.25 million copies. of fungi from all over the world, including specimens collected by John Ray, Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt.

Tom Prescott at the fungarium at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, which holds approximately 1.25 million copies of fungi.

People are discovering fungi annually, Prescott told CNN. "That's all, from fungi that you can see with the naked eye to the microscopic fungi that you might not know they were there for, but we detected them using DNA."

Some famous examples of medical applications are the cholesterol lowering drug lovastatin, produced by the fungus Aspergillus terreus, or a vaccine against hepatitis B that is made using yeast.

The drug fingolimode – used to treat autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis – is derived from an attractive "zombie" fungus, Isaria sinclairii, which invades an insect, takes over and eventually acts as an "evil puppet master", controlling the disease. body and behavior of the insect to perform tasks which are advantageous for the fungus, Prescott said, holding a box sample of the fungus in action.

Meanwhile, the insect is kept alive, "so it's horrible," he said. "It's crucial that the fungus does not kill the insect initially, but keep it alive, so that's why it produces an immunosuppressive chemical." This chemical is myriocin, which also suppresses the human immune system.

The drug of multiple sclerosis Fingolimod, derived from chemicals produced by the insect invader fungus Isaria sinclairii.

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

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

There was competition between human chemicals and fungi on which it is best to produce these pills, and fungi turned out to be a more economical option, Prescott said.

A Cordyceps fungus invades a cricket to grow.

Saving 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 the enzymes proteases and amylases, used in detergent preparations, such as the most significant industrial application of enzymes.
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The use of enzymes in detergents dates back to 1988. Lipase, derived from the fungus Thermomyces lanuginosus, is effective in removing fat stains from clothing.
Most detergents contain various enzymes, such as proteases, amylases, cellulases and lipases, to increase efficacy and allow washing at lower temperatures.

Fungi are also used to keep the appearance of clothes fresh.

Fungi are natural debris debris, Prescott said. In the forests, they break the material of the leaves, making enzymes called cellulases. "It turns out that if you add cellulases to post washing, it nibbles on the tiny cotton yarns of the cotton fabrics, and that kind of gnaws them, and gives the cotton look look more recent than it really 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 plastics like polyester polyurethane, often used in refrigerator insulation, possibly in weeks rather than years, potentially making it a key player in the fight against the global problem of plastic waste.

Prescott believes the ultimate goal would be to create plastic-like materials from fungi – which can then be broken down by fungi. It is not clear whether this may be possible, but "that's what makes it really exciting," he added.

Fungus in agriculture

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

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

Landvik explained that adding phytase to release phosphates from feed and helping animals to absorb this essential nutrient also reduces farmers' costs and environmental pollution.

She believes that enzymes in fungi are the key to making a number of industries more sustainable by replacing some industrial steps.

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

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