Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Fungal Internet - Millions of Years Old

Hidden under your feet is an information superhighway that allows plants to communicate and help each other out. It’s made of fungi!

The BBC have released an article summarising and putting into context a series of observations made about the ability many plants have to form intimate relationships with fungi growing around their roots.

Mycorrhiza have been known for many years now as a symbiotic relationship that allows plants to grow better in areas that have poor soil - many conifer plantations in the UK are examples of vigorous growth in very poor soil that is assisted by fungi. The fungi are thought to be fed carbohydrates by the plant while the plant gains access to nutrients (e.g. phosphates) that are scarce and growth limiting.

However we are beginning to realise that the fungi do far more. Networks of fungal threads connect up many plant roots, not only providing access to nutrients but also acting as a communication system between plants! This has good and bad consequences for individual plants:

  • Large, established 'parent' trees have been shown to provide food to young seedlings
  • Nutrients are known to flow between trees of different species
  • 'Warnings' are exchanged between plants when pathogens are causing damage to one plant so that the others can bolster their defences against infection
  • Some 'malevolent' species use the fungal internet to 'steal' food from others
  • Some plants will use the fungal internet to 'poison' their neighbours and gain a growth advantage 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Bagpipers Urged to Keep Their Pipes Clean of Fungi

WARNING: your bagpipes may kill you! 

Leading piping organisations have issued a hygiene alert after a piper was hospitalised for four weeks having contracted a potentially fatal lung infection… from his ­bagpipes.

John Shone, an expert in classical piping, first learned to play while a member of the Boys’ Brigade seven decades ago and has practised daily ever since.

But the 77-year-old’s love of Scotland’s national instrument was sorely tested after he ­inhaled fungal spores which had colonised his bagpipes.

The College of Piping has now warned pipers to be aware of the dangers of not cleaning their bagpipes properly, particularly those that have modern synthetic bags, which do not demand the traditional maintenance treatments that help keep old-style bags, made from hide, clean.
Shone, a former committee member of the Piobaireachd Society, was preparing to play at a special event in September when he fell ill during a fishing trip to Scotland. He was forced to return to his ­Wiltshire home.

His GP prescribed anti­biotics but they did not work and he was admitted to hospital. Two days later, he was sent home, but a week later his health deteriorated rapidly and he was quickly readmitted to ­hospital.

As he lay in a critical condition, doctors were mystified by the cause of his illness and struggled in vain for more than a week to cure him using a variety of antibiotics.

“I was extremely tired and slowly fading away and my consultant told me it was life-threatening,” said Shone, who added that he had been told the spores he had inhaled had a 50 per cent chance of killing him.

“I became very much weaker and it was obvious to my consultant and my son that they were dealing with a life-or-death situation,” he added.

It was only after a consultant questioned him about his hobbies that a possible cause was found.

Read the full article by Fiona MacGregor

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Aspergillus Protease Allergens have a Role in Asthma

Asthma is a debilitating disease characterised by airway inflammation, hyperresponsiveness and bronchoconstriction leading to symptoms such as wheeze, cough and breathlessness, and in severe cases even death.

Adults with severe asthma have significantly greater test reactivity to fungi (incl. Aspergillus fumigatus) compared with other well established allergens eg house dust mite and 50% of those with the most severe asthma attacks (i.e. those admitted to intensive care units) are sensitive to at least one fungal allergen .

Given these observations, the authors of this recent paper set out to discover if Aspergillus allergens have a role in the exacerbation of asthma and thus make symptoms far worse for the patient. They focused on a subset of Aspergillus allergens that not only provide a potential for allergic reaction in the patient, but also have an additionally destructive activity known as protease. Proteases can directly attack the surface of our lungs and airways, potentially destroying the delicate proteins that are so important to form the structure of the airways and the mechanisms that control infection and immunity. It is thought that these proteases could initiate the characteristic hyper-reactivity of the airways of a severe asthmatic.

The authors were able to remove two protease allergens from a strain of A. fumigatus that is known to induce asthma-like symptoms in mice. When tested in mice the effect was to reduce airway inflammation and airway remodelling, thus reducing two of the most prominent symptoms of asthma - hopefully this would be repeated if the same experiment was to be carried out in humans!

It is hoped that this result will highlight the importance of fungi in causing and exacerbating severe asthma and that more research can now be carried out on drugs which might block the activities of fungal allergens in these patients.

It is worth mentioning that there are two further allergic diseases that could benefit from this research. Allergic Bronchopulmonary Aspergillosis (ABPA) as well as Severe Asthma with Fungal Sensitivity (SAFS) prominently feature the growth of fungi (in particular Aspergillus) in the airways of the affected people. Perhaps protease allergens are one way that Aspergillus can gain a foothold in the lungs of these people and gradually grow?

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A New Direction for Antibiotic Development Thanks to Fungi

Could there be a new form of antibiotic? Scientists have identified a new substance with antibiotic tendencies. Typical antibiotics are non-protein organic compounds, but this new substance has been found to be a protein called copsin.

Copsin has been isolated from a common inky cap mushroom Coprinopsis cinerea, a fungus that grows on horse dung. Research found that copsin was the protein that enabled the fungus to kill certain bacteria. They have currently found that copsin is a very stable protein. It is resistant to exposure to protein degrading enzymes and high temperatures for several hours. It acts by inhibiting reproduction of the bacteria by binding to an essential building block in the wall of bacteria. Further investigations into the protein aim to discover what possible uses copsin can provide.

One thought is it could help discover how fungi use this ability to resist bacteria without having the issue of resistance, a major problem with today’s antibiotics. Uses of copsin have also been suggested in the food industry.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Flying Fungus - Covert Mycelia!

Drones (unmanned remotely controlled aircraft on which equipment such as cameras are mounted) have been used by the military for some time for high level surveillance tasks, but now are increasingly available to civil authorities and members of the public, though their use is subject to strict regulations in the UK.

A student team has recently created a drone that consists of the vegetative part of fungi call the mycelium and protective sheets of bacteria covering it. This provides the structure that contains the controls, propellers and battery (which remain non-biological). 

This aim of this design was to have a device that can degrade into the landscape and not leaving any evidence of its presence. Also, by using proteins from wasp saliva, the team was able to waterproof the drone, maximising bio-degradability. Despite not currently being fully bio-degradable, the team’s overall aim to achieve this in the near future. Real world applications such as flying over sensitive environments or even spying have been suggested.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Toxic Mould in Herbal Medicines

Dried herbal medicines

It is estimated that the herbal medicine industry is worth $60 billion. Over 60% of people use medicinal plants to treat illnesses and relieve pain, but with the majority of medicinal plants unregulated, what could those people also be exposing themselves to.

A new study has found 43% of the plants naturally contaminated with toxins, 30% of these being carcinogenic substance known as aflatoxins. They found 26% contains ochratoxin A, a toxic substance to the liver and kidneys and can increase the susceptibility to disease as it suppresses the immune system.

A call for greater regulation on these products has been called for to ensure the health of those using them. The public need to be aware that just because it is natural, does not mean it is safe. The products can be contaminated at any stage of production with consumers unaware whether the products they purchase have toxic levels of substances. To benefit from this industry, controls need to be put into place that ensures the safety of the user.

Original article:

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