Under Jim Anderson's feet is a monster. It has been living since the Persian king Xerxes warred against the ancient Greeks and weighs more than three blue whales. It has a lush appetite, which eats through large forest roads. But this is not a long forgotten beast of Greek mythology. It's a mushroom.
Anderson stands in a modest patch of forest falls in Crystal Falls, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He visits an organism that lives under the forest floor that he and his colleagues discovered almost 30 years ago. This is the home of Armillaria gallica a type of honey fungus.
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These common fungi are found in temperate forests across Asia, North America and Europe, where they grow on dead or dying wood, helping to accelerate the decay. Often the only visible sign of them over the ground is lumps of scaly, yellow-brown toad-pallet-like fruit bodies that grow up to 1
When Anderson and his colleagues visited Crystal Falls at the end of the 1980s, they discovered that what initially seemed to be a rich community of Armillaria gallica that blossomed under the mulch of the foliage and the upper soil of the woodland was actually a giant individual test. They estimated that it covered an area of 91 hectares, weighed 100 tons and was at least 1500 years old. It set a new record at the time of the largest organism on the planet – a similar fungus in a forest in Oregon now holds the record.
"It caused a mess at that time," Anderson says. "Our paper came out on April Fool's Day so everyone thought it was a joke. Since 2015, we thought we would go back and test our prediction that this was really a persistent, single organism."
The new results showed that it was four times larger, 1000 years older and if they collected would weigh about 400 tons  They stopped returning to the site several times between 2015 and 2017, taking samples from distant points around the forest and then running DNA which they received through a sequencer back in their laboratory at the University of Toronto. Since the first survey in the 1980s, genetic analysis has evolved in boundaries, with new techniques making the process far cheaper and more information.
Their new samples revealed that not only Armillaria gallica they had the discovereda single individual, but it was far larger and older than they had predicted. The new results showed that it was four times larger, 1000 years older and if they gathered would weigh about 400 tons.
But the analysis gave an even more surprising insight, one that could help us people in the fight against a modern drug Biggest enemies – cancer.
The Canadian researchers discovered what could be the secret of Armillaria gallica sixth-ordinal size and age. It appears that the fungus has an extremely low mutation frequency, which means it avoids potentially harmful changes in its genetic code.
When organisms grow, the cells are divided into two to produce new daughter cells. Over time, DNA in the cells may be damaged, leading to errors known as mutations that creep into the genetic code. This is believed to be one of the most important mechanisms that cause aging.
But it seems that Armillaria gallica in Crystal Falls may have some inherent resistance to this DNA damage. In 15 samples taken from distant parts of the forest and sequenced by the team, only 163 letters of 100 million in Armillaria gallica had genetic code changed.
The fungus has a mechanism that helps protect its DNA from damage, giving it one of the most stable genomes in nature
"The frequency of mutation is much, much lower than we could ever have imagined," Anderson said. "To have this low level of mutation, we would expect the cells to be divided on average once for each growth meter. But what is surprising is that the cells are microscopic – just a few microns in size – so you would need millions of them in each meter of growth. "
Anderson and his team believe that the fungus has a mechanism that helps protect its DNA from damage, giving it one of the most stable genomes in the natural world. While they still have to blend exactly what this is, the remarkable stability of the gene Armillaria gallica can offer new insights into human health.
In some cancers, mutations can run into cells as the normal mechanisms that control and repair DNA refraction.
" Armillaria gallica can provide a potential counterpoint to the infamous instability of cancer," Anderson said. "If you looked at a number of cancer cells that were similar in age, it would be so riddled with mutations that you probably couldn't recognize. Armillaria is on the opposite side. evolutionary changes that have made it possible to be like this and compare them with cancer cells. "By doing this, not only can researchers learn more about what goes wrong in cancer cells but can also provide potential new ways to treat cancer.
While Anderson and his colleagues are not planning to do this work themselves – they leave it to others who are younger and more qualified to understand the genetic complexity of cancer – their results provide an exciting insight into the sponges of untapped power to help mankind .
The combined biomass of the fungus exceeds that of all the animals on the planet being assembled
Fungi are some of the most common organisms on our planet – the combined biomass of these is often small organisms exceeding that of all the animals on the planet put together. And we constantly discover new fungi. More than 90% of the estimated 3.8 million fungi in the world are currently unknown to science. In 2017 alone there were 2,189 new fungal species described by researchers.
A recently published report from the UK's Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London highlighted that fungi are already used in hundreds of ways, from making paper to helping to clean our dirty clothes. About 15% of all vaccines and biologically produced drugs come from fungi. For example, the complex proteins used to trigger an immune response to the hepatitis B virus are grown in yeast cells, which are part of the fungal family.
Perhaps the most well-known antibiotic penticillin is, which was discovered in a common type of household that often grows on old bread. Dozens of other types of antibiotics are now produced by fungi.
They are also sources of treatments for migraine and statins for the treatment of heart disease. A relatively new immunosuppressant, used for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, was developed from a compound produced by a fungus that infects cicada larvae.
"It is part of this fungal family that enters insects and takes over them," said Tom Prescott, a researcher evaluating the use of plants and fungi at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. "They produce these compounds to suppress the insect immune system and it turns out that they can also be used in humans."
But some scientists believe that we have hardly scratched the surface of what fungi can offer us.
Compounds produced by fungi can destroy viruses that cause diseases such as influenza, polio, furrows, measles and glandular fever
"It has already been reported [fungi] to have activity against viral diseases," says Riikka Linnakoski, forest pathologist at Natural Resources Finland . Compounds produced by fungi can destroy viruses that cause diseases such as influenza, polio, hip, measles and glandular fever. Many fungi have also been shown to produce compounds that can treat diseases that currently do not have cures, such as HIV and the Zika virus.
"I think they represent only a small part of the entire arsenal of bioactive compounds," Linnakoski says. "Fungi are a great source of various bioactive molecules, which can potentially be used as antiviral agents in the future."
She is part of a research group that investigates whether fungi that grow in the mangrove forest in Colombia can be sources of new antiviral agents. However, these goals have not yet been achieved. While fungi have been well investigated as a source of antibiotics that act against bacteria, no antiviral drugs derived from fungi have been approved.
Linnakoski puts this obvious omission of the scientific community down to the difficulty of collecting and cultivating many fungi 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 a fungal-based antiviral drug goes into clinics.
Linnakoski also believes that new fungal species are sought in innocuous environments which in the sediment on the seabed in some of the deepest parts of the sea or in the very changing conditions of mangrove forests can provide even more exciting compounds.
"The extreme conditions are thought to try fungi to produce unique and structurally unsurpassed secondary metabolites," she says. "Unfortunately, many of the natural ecosystems that have great potential for discovering new bioactive compounds, such as mangrove forests, are disappearing alarmingly."
A fungus that grew in soil at a landfill on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, can rapidly break down polyurethane plastic
But fungi have uses that can deal with other problems beyond our health.
A fungus found in soil at a landfill on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, can be a solution to the alarming levels of plastic pollution that closes our oceans. Fariha Hasan, a microbiologist at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, discovered the fungi Aspergillus tubingensis can rapidly break down polyurethane plastic.
These plastic materials, which used to make a wide range of products including furniture foam, electronics cases, glue and film, can hang on land and sea water for years. However, the fungi have been shown to break it down within a few weeks. Hasan and her team are now investigating how to use the sponges for large-scale degradation of plastic waste. Other fungi, such as Pestalotiopsis microspore which normally grows on rotten ivy leaves, have also been shown to have an incredible appetite for plastics, which increases the hopes that they can be utilized to handle our growing waste problem.
In fact, fungi have a taste for the pollution we pollute our world with. Species have been discovered that can clean up oil conditions from the ground, break down harmful heavy metals, consume long-lived pesticides and even help to rehabilitate radioactive sites.
However, fungi can also help to avoid having to use any plastic in the first place.
A number of groups around the world are now trying to exploit an important function of fungi – the blood cells in the mycelium they produce – to create materials that can replace plastic packaging. As fungi grow, these mycelial strands branch outward, so that the probes enter the angles and dikes of the soil, bind it together. They are nature's glue.
In 2010 Ecovative Design began to investigate how they could use this to bind together natural waste such as rice husks or wood chips to produce an alternative to polystyrene packaging. Their early work has been developed into MycoComposite, which uses remnants of pieces of hemp plants as base material.
These are packaged in reusable molds along with fungal spores and flour, which are then left to grow for nine days. When they do, they produce enzymes that begin to melt the waste. When the material has grown to the desired shape, it is then treated with heat to dry out the material and stop further growth. The resulting sponge package is biodegradable and is already used by companies such as Dell to package their computers.
The company has also developed a way to grow mycelium in foam that can be used in coaches or as insulation and fabrics that mimic leather. Working with durable Bolt Threats looms, it combines waste rods with the mycelium, making it possible to grow into a mat that is tanned and compressed. The whole process takes days rather than the years needed for animal leather.
Stella McCartney is among the designers who are now looking to use this mushroom leather and shoe designer Liz Ciokajlo recently used mycelium to create a modern redesign of the 1970s Moon Boot fashion trend
It is possible to set the quality of mycelium material by modifying what it must melt
Athanassia Athanassiou, a material scientist at the Italian Technical Institute in Genoa, has used fungi to develop new types of bandages for the treatment of chronic wounds.
But she has also discovered that it is possible to set the qualities of the mycelial material by changing what it must melt. The more difficult a substance is for the fungi to digest – for example, wood chips rather than potato peels – the stiffer the resulting mycelium material is, for example.
It gives the prospect of using sponges for more robust purposes.
California-based MycoWorks has developed ways to make sponges for building materials. By cheating wood with mycelium, they have been able to create bricks that are fire-retardant and harder than conventional concrete.
Tien Huynh, biotechnologist at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, has led a project to create similar fungal stones by combining mycelium from Trametes versicolor with rice hulls and crushed glass.
She says that they not only provide a cheap and environmentally friendly building material, but also help solve another problem that many homes in Australia and around the world – termites. The silica content of the rice and the glass makes the material less appetizing for termites, causing billions of dollars in home damage each year.
"In our research, we have also used the fungi to produce enzymes and new biostructures for various properties, including sound absorption, strength and flexibility," says Huynh. Her team also works with using fungi to produce chitin – a substance used to thicken food and in many cosmetics. "" Chitin is usually processed from shellfish that have hypoallergenic properties, "she says." The mushroom chitin doesn't. We will have more mushroom-based products later this year, but it is really a fascinating resource under-utilized. "
Fungi can also be used in combination with traditional building materials to create a" smart concrete "which can heal as the fungi grow into any cracks that form secretion of fresh calcium carbonate – the main raw material in concrete – to repair the damage. 19659002] "The possibilities of what we might use mycelium for are endless," says Gitartha Kalita, bioengineer at Assam Engineering College and Assam Don Bosco University in Guwahati, India, and he and his colleagues have used mushrooms and piles to create an alternative to wood. for building. "Everything we now call agricultural waste is actually an incredible resource that fungi can grow on. We have already worsened our environment and so if we can replace the material in question with something that is being held in a sustainable way. They can take our waste and make it something that is really valuable to us. "
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