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The ‘zombie fungi’ saving lives — and the planet

Study 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 mushroom species as possible," said Landvik, a mycologist – a mushroom scientist – at the Novozymes biotechnology company. "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 so many different directions, they are truly incredible."

The best The estimate is that there are as many as 3.8 million species of fungi all over the world ̵
1; even though about 144,000 were discovered, according to the State of the World & # 39; s Fungi report. ; year, compiled by staff members of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and many 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 to humans.

  Mushrooms could solve the plastic crisis in the world, scientists say

Once the samples reach the laboratory, says Landvik, are grown inside a Petri dish and cut into pieces, which are then placed in a flask with a liquid of nutrients such as minerals and vitamins and a coal source to help the mushrooms to 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 mushrooms are studied before researchers encounter one that could be applied, Landvik said.

It's like a "lottery ticket", he says, because every discovery could turn out to be "something that can make a difference to 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%.
Most famous is the discovery of penicillin in 1928, Discovered when Alexander Fleming was selecting his Petri dishes after a holiday and saw a mass of mold that had developed with a limpid area that surrounded it, later turned out to be a strain of Notricum of Penicillium.

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

  Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928.

"Evil puppetmaster"

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

"Broadly speaking, the three major themes are perhaps medicine, biotechnology and, in the broadest sense … mushrooms are really good to eat," 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 the cholesterol-lowering drug produced by the fungus Aspergillus terreus, or a hepatitis B vaccine that is produced using yeast.

The fingolimod of the drug – used to treat the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis – comes from a showy mushroom "zombi", Isaria sinclairii, which invades an insect, takes it and eventually behaves like an "evil puppeteer", checking the body and behavior of the insect to perform tasks that are beneficial to the fungus, said Prescott, holding a canned sample of the mushroom 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, the medicine for multiple sclerosis, derived from chemical substances produced by the fungus invader of Isaria sinclairii insects.

"A lot of fundamental biochemistry and even immunology are shared, surprisingly, even among 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 better to produce these pills, and mushrooms turned out to be a cheaper option, said Prescott.

  A Cordyceps mushroom 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 "Mushrooms: Biology and Applications". The book mentions enzymatic proteases and 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 increase effectiveness and allow washing at lower temperatures.

Mushrooms are also used to keep the clothes fresh.

Mushrooms are natural degradants 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.

Fungus in farming

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

A fungal enzyme, phytase, breaks down these difficult chemicals and is particularly useful for some molecules containing phosphate 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, said Prescott.

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

He believes that enzymes in fungi are the key to making more numerous industries more sustainable by 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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