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BBC – Future – The unexpected magic of mushrooms

A monster lies under Jim Anderson's legs. He is alive, as the Persian king Xerxes wages war against the ancient Greeks and weighs more than three blue whales put together. He has an insatiable appetite, eating his way through huge forests. But this is not a long-forgotten animal carried by Greek mythology. It's a sponge.

Anderson stands in an unpretentious stretch of forest in Crystal Falls, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He looks at an organism living in the woods that he and his colleagues discovered almost 30 years ago. This is the home of Armillaria gallica a type of honey sponge.

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These Common Mushrooms are found in moderate forests throughout Asia, North America and Europe where they grow dead or dying wood, helping to accelerate decay. Often the only visible sign on them above the ground is the cluster of scaly, yellow-brown, fruit-like bodies that grow up to 1

0 cm tall.

When Anderson and colleagues visited Crystal Falls in the late 1980s, they discovered that what appeared to be a rich community of Armillaria gallica thriving under mulch of leaves and top soil on the ground floor, it was actually a giant individual specimen. According to them, it covers an area of ​​about 91 acres, weighs 100 tonnes and is at least 1500 years old. He set a new record at this time for the planet's largest organism – a similar mushroom in the Oregon forest now holds the record.

"This caused quite a stir at that time," Anderson says. "Our newspaper came out on the Day of April 1st, so everyone thought it was a joke. Then, in 2015, we thought we should go back and check our forecast that this is really a permanent, single organism. "

The new results show that it is four times bigger, 1000 years older, and if they assemble together, they weigh around 400 tonnes. 19659009] They eventually return to the place several times between 2015 and 2017, take samples from distant points around the forest and then conduct the DNA they have received via a sequencer back to their laboratory at the University of Toronto. Since its initial study in the 1980s, genetic analysis has been advancing in frontiers, with new techniques that make the process far cheaper, faster and provide more information.

Their new samples reveal that not only Armillaria gallica they have discovered a single individual, but they are much older and older than they have predicted. The new results show that they are four times bigger, 1000 years older, and if they come together they weigh about 400 tons.

But the analysis produces an even more surprising insight that can help us fight one of the modern drugs. The Biggest Cancer Enemies

Canadian researchers have discovered what the secret behind the selection of unusual sizes and ages might be. It appears that the fungus has an extremely low degree of mutation – meaning it avoids potentially harmful changes in the genetic code

When organisms grow, their cells are split into two to produce new daughter cells. Over time, DNA in the cells can be damaged, resulting in errors known as mutations crawling in the genetic code. It is believed that this is one of the key mechanisms that cause aging. But it looks like in Crystal Falls might have some built-in resistance to this DNA damage. In 15 samples taken from remote parts of the forest and ordered by the team, only 163 letters of 100 million in the genetic code of Armillaria gallica have changed

The fungus has a mechanism that helps protect its DNA from damage by giving him one of the most stable genomes in the natural world

"The frequency of mutations is much, much lower than we can imagine," Anderson says. "To have this low level of mutation, we expect the cells to divide on average once for each meter of growth. But it's amazing that the cells are microscopic – with only a few micrometres in size – so you'll need millions on every meter of growth. "Anderson and his team believe that the fungus has a mechanism that helps protect DNA from damage that gives it one of the most stable genomes in the natural world. While they still need to figure out exactly what this is, the remarkable stability of the Armillaria gallica genome can offer new insights into human health. In some types of cancer, mutations can become rebellion in cells as normal mechanisms that check and restore DNA destruction Armillaria gallica can provide a potential counterpoint to the known cancer instability, says Anderson. "If you look at a line of cancer cells that are equivalent to age, it would be so muttered that you probably will not recognize it. Armillaria is at the opposite end. It may be possible to choose the evolutionary changes that have allowed it to be and to compare with cancer cells. "This would not only allow scientists to learn more about what is happening in cancer cells, but it can also provide potential. New ways to treat cancer

While Anderson and colleagues do not plan to do this on their own – they leave it to others who are younger and more skilled to understand the genetic complexity of cancer – their discoveries provide an intriguing look at the undeveloped force of the fungi to support humanity.

Fungi are one of the most common organisms on our planet – the combined biomass of them is often a small organism that exceeds that of all the animals on the planet taken together. And we constantly find new mushrooms. More than 90% of the approximately 3.8 million mushrooms in the world are currently not known in science. Only in 2017 there were 2189 new types of mushrooms described by scientists.

A recent report published by British Royal Botanical Gardens Que in London stressed that the fungus is already being used in hundreds of different ways, from making paper to helping clean up. our dirty clothes. About 15% of all vaccines and organically produced medicines come from mushrooms. Complex proteins used to trigger an immune response to the hepatitis B virus, for example, are grown in yeast cells that are part of the fungus family.

Perhaps the most famous is the antibiotic penicillin found in a common form of house mold, which often grows on old bread. Dozens of other types of antibiotics are now produced by fungi.

They are also sources of treatment for migraines and statins for the treatment of heart disease. A relatively new immunosuppressant used to treat multiple sclerosis has been developed from a compound produced by a fungus that infects the cyclosporin larvae.

"This is part of this family of fungi that fall into insects and take them," says Tom Prescott researcher who evaluates the use of plants and mushrooms in the Khu Botanical Garden. "They produce these compounds to suppress the immune system of insects and it appears that they can be used in humans as well."

But some researchers think we're barely scratching the surface of what the fungi can offer us. fungi can destroy viruses that cause illnesses like flu, polio, mumps, measles and glandular fever

"There is [fungi] reported to have activity against viral diseases," says Rieka Linakoski, a forest pathologist at the Institute of Natural Resources . Finland. Compounds made from mushrooms can destroy viruses that cause diseases such as flu, polio, mumps, measles and glandular fever. It has also been established that many mushrooms produce compounds that can treat diseases that are not currently cured, such as HIV and the Zika virus.

"I believe they represent only a small part of the full arsenal of bioactive compounds," Linnakoski says, "Fungi are a huge source of various bioactive molecules that could potentially be used as antivirals in the future."

She is part of a research team investigating whether mushrooms growing in Colombia's mangrove forests could be sources of new antivirus. However, these targets have not yet been implemented. While the fungus is well-studied as a source of antibiotics that act against bacteria, no antiviral medications derived from the fungus are approved.

Linnakoski places this apparent omission from the scientific community to the difficulties of gathering and cultivating many mushrooms from the natural environment and the historical lack of communication between mycologists and the virological community. But she thinks it will only be a matter of time before an antiviral medicine based on mushrooms enters the clinics.

Linnakoski also believes that demand for new types of mushrooms in inhospitable environments such as seabed sediments in some of the deepest parts of the ocean or in the highly changing mangrove forests can lead to even more exciting compounds. "Extreme conditions are thought to provoke fungus to produce unique and structurally unprecedented secondary metabolites," she says. , "Unfortunately, many of the local ecosystems that have great potential for discovering new bioactive compounds such as mangrove forests are at an alarming rate."

A sponge found growing in the soil at a landfill site on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan can quickly destroy polyurethane plastic

But fungi have uses that can handle other problems beyond our health.

A sponge found growing in the soil of a depot on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, may be a solution to the alarming levels of plastic pollution of our oceans. Fariha Hasan, a microbiologist at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, found the fungus Aspergillus tubingensis can rapidly destroy the polyurethane plastic.

These plastics, which are used to produce a wide range of products including foam furniture, electronics cases, adhesives, and films, can be worn in soil and seawater for years. It has been found, however, that the fungus destroys it within a few weeks. Now Hassan and her team are exploring how to use the mushrooms for mass degradation of plastic waste. Other fungi such as Pestalotiopsis microspore which usually grow on decaying ivy leaves, have also found that they have a huge appetite for plastic, which increases the hopes that they can be used to cope with the growing waste problem . In fact, mushrooms have a lot of taste for the pollution that pollutes our world. There are species that can clean soil pollution, degrade harmful heavy metals, consume persistent pesticides and even help restore radioactive objects.

A number of groups around the world are now trying to use a key feature of the fungus – the venous mycelial nets they produce – to create materials that can replace plastic packaging. When mushrooms grow, these strands of the mycelium are branched out to try in the nooks and rods in the soil by joining together. They are a natural glue.

In 2010, Ecovative Design began exploring how they could use this to link natural waste products such as rice flakes or sawdust to produce an alternative to polystyrene packaging. Their early work has developed into MycoComposite, which uses the remainder of the hemp plant as a base material.

They are packed in reusable forms, along with fungal spores and flour, which are then allowed to grow for nine days. While they do, they produce enzymes that begin to digest the waste. Once the material has become the desired form, it is treated with heat to dry the material and stop further growth. The resulting mushroom packaging is biodegradable and is already being used by companies such as Dell for PC packaging.

The company has also developed a way of spawning a micelle in foam that can be used by trainers or as an insulator, and tissues that mimic Skin. By working with persistent fabrics, Bolt Threats combines waste corn stalks with mycelium, allowing it to grow into a fabric that is tanned and compressed. The whole process takes days, not years, necessary for the skin of the animals.

Stella McCartney is among the designers who now want to use this sponge leather and shoe designer Liz Chiocca who recently used the micelle to create a modern fashion trend from the moon. It is possible to adjust the properties of the micelle material by changing what needs to be learned

Atanasia Atanasiu, a material scientist at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, uses fungi to develop new types of dressings for treatment of chronic wounds.

But she also discovered that it is possible to adjust the properties of mycelial material by changing what needs to be mastered. The harder it is to digest the fungus – like sawdust rather than potato peel – is the harder material of the mycelium, for example.

Raises the prospect of using mushrooms for healthier purposes. MycoWorks developed ways to make mushrooms into building materials. By combining wood together with the mycelium, they are able to create bricks that are firmer and stronger than conventional concrete. Tien Huynh, a biotechnologist at the Australian Institute of Technology in Melbourne, is leading a project to create such a fungal brick by combining a mycelium of Trametes versicolor with rice hulls and crushed glass

She says that not only provide cheap and environmentally friendly building material, but also help solve another problem faced by many homes in Australia and the world – termites. The silica content of rice and glass makes the material less appetizing for termites that cause billions of dollars in damage to homes every year.

"In our research, we also used the enzyme-producing fungi and new bio-structures for various properties, including sound absorption, strength and flexibility," Huynh said. Her team also works on the use of mushrooms for the production of chitin – a substance used to thicken foods and in many cosmetic products.

"Chitin is usually processed by shells that have hypoallergenic properties," she says. – Fungal chitin does not. Later in the year, we will have more fungus-based products, but this is certainly an incredibly scarce resource.

Mushrooms can be used in combination with traditional building materials to create "intelligent concrete" that can be cured like fungi. grows into any cracks it forms, releasing fresh calcium carbonate – the main raw material in the concrete – to repair the damage.

"The possibilities for what we can use mycelium are endless," says Gitartha Kalita, a bio engineer at the Assam Engineering College and Assam Don Bosco University in Gwahati, India. He and his colleagues use mushrooms and hay waste to create an alternative to a building tree. "Everything we now call agricultural waste is actually an incredible resource on which mushrooms can grow. We have already degraded the environment and so if we can replace the current materials with something that will hold in a sustainable way. They can take our waste and turn it into something that is really valuable to us. "

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