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Blue denim, the death of dinosaurs and 8 other things you did not know mushrooms played a role in

Most of us know a lot more about animals, plants and even bacteria than about fungi. But the realm of this life contains a wide range of species – much more than just the fungi we eat and the molds that grow on our food. In fact, they are around us all the time, even playing an important role in ours intestinal microbiome.

IN The hidden realm of mushrooms, Keith Seifert explores how fungi are intimately linked to all life on earth. Read on for 10 fantastic facts about mushrooms.


Your house can be home to 600 different mushrooms

Researchers used to believe that Western homes housed about 100 species of fungi, but the next generation of DNA barcoding of my house discovered about 600 species.

This is a typical number. The fungi come with food, blow through windows or grow like endophytes hidden in needles of Christmas trees. Some establish themselves and grow in house dust, textiles and on building materials, especially in modern homes with more insulation and reduced ventilation.

In our quest to reduce heating costs, we are increasing the humidity and heat in the indoor air: the perfect environment for mold. For residents with severe allergies or asthma, this can be dangerous, but for most of us it is just a nuisance.

Fallen needles on the ground, speckled with mountain-like spore-producing structures of a fungal endophyte, Lophodermium

Fallen needles on the ground, speckled with mountain-like spore-producing structures of a fungal endophyte, Lophodermium © Keith Seifert

Your scalp is home to many yeasts

Up to 10 million cells of dandruff are found in the average scalp, each of which lives for about a month.

Researchers believe that they prevent our skin from drying out and counteract potentially infectious microbes. But our bodies lose up to 40,000 epidermal cells per day (about 4 kg per year) to prevent the skin surface from being suffocated by these yeasts – the phenomenon we call dandruff.

Fungal infections may have been involved in the extinction of dinosaurs

The hypothesis for fungal infection-mammalian selection (FIMS) suggests that mammals increased to dominance due to dinosaurs killed by fungal infections. After the Chicxulub asteroid hit Earth and our planet began to cool, dinosaurs could not raise their body temperature enough to fight pathogenic mold, while mammals had developed a self-regulating thermal system.

Even today, the closest relatives of dinosaurs, birds and reptiles are cold-blooded and suffer from more fungal diseases than mammals.

You have mushrooms to thank for your jeans

The denim in stonewashed blue jeans is usually softened with cellulases made from the mold Trichoderma reesei.

Fungal enzymes are also magical ingredients in detergents, and most of the citric acid used to give wrinkles to carbonated beverages is produced by molds grown in liquid fermenters much like those used in breweries.

Fungi can help us colonize Mars

NASA is considering myco-architecture – sheets of building materials built from mycelium grown on site, for a possible colony of March as it would be extremely expensive to retrieve bricks, mortar and wood from the earth.

It would be cheaper to build small factors on the red planet, where mycelium could be grown and formed into sheets similar to plywood. Photosynthetic algae could be inserted between flexible layers of compressed mycelium and make something resembling an artificial lichen, so that the buildings could harvest solar energy and produce their own oxygen.

Biofuels are dependent on fungi

Fungi play an important role in the steadily growing alternative energy source for bioethanol, as well as other biofuels.

Bioethanol produces less energy per liter than petrol, but also less than half of the carbon dioxide. The starting material is agricultural waste, such as corn cobs, soybean stalks or sugar cane bagasse, ground into fine flour.

This powder is mixed with fungal cellulase enzymes that break down the cellulose into sugar. The sugar is fed to brewer’s yeast in fermenters, and the resulting ethanol is distilled and then added to gasoline. Most western countries allow 5 to 10 percent ethanol to be blended into gasoline (up to 25 percent in Brazil); higher concentrations require modified engines.

Fungi can be used to decontaminate contaminants

Several molds can use petroleum products as a carbon source. Enzymes isolated from mold growing in the “plastic sphere” can break the complex three-dimensional matrix of plastic into simpler molecules that are easier to process.

The absorption tendencies of the fungal mycelium have been tested to clean up soil waste, mining waste, radioactive waste, nerve gas residues and fuel waste with this process, called mycoremediation.

You should enjoy your coffee while you can

Coffee crops are seriously endangered – from climate change, low genetic diversity and the invasive coffee cheese Hemileia vastatrix. This rust (related to the fungal cause of wheat epidemics during the Great Depression) followed coffee trees around the world as imperial powers fell in love with the bridge and transplanted it into more and more countries.

The disease was first seen in Sri Lanka in the mid-19th century, where it destroyed the coffee crop. It was then that the English lost their main source of coffee and adopted tea as their afternoon drink. The rust has now caught up with the estimated harvests in South and Central America, with harvest losses of 90 to 100 percent. Coffee breeders hope to be able to save the crops by generating resistant varieties.

Fungi can save your life

Fungi are at the heart of life-changing medical breakthroughs, including the development of antibiotics such as penicillin and organ transplant drugs.

Penicillin, from the mold Penicillium rubens, was discovered by Alexander Fleming 1928. It was not developed as a medicine until a team of chemists from Oxford began working on it during World War II. Research on the potential miracle drug was eventually moved to the United States to keep it away from the Nazis.

During the war, the North American supply of penicillin was less than half an ounce, about the weight of a pen. Mary Hunt, an assistant in the American lab, isolated a new strain from a rotting cantaloupe she bought, which dramatically increased the supply of penicillin. Her strain is still used to mass-produce the drug today, after it was mutated to further increase its production.

One of the largest living organisms on earth is a fungus

Honey fungus

Honey fungus © Keith Seifert

Genetically identical clones of the honey fungus, the tree parasite Armillaria, link together to huge underground networks. Known as the humongous fungus, the largest known individual is found in the Malheur Forest in Oregon, USA, covers 2,300 acres and is estimated to weigh up to 32,000 tons.

The hidden realm of fungi: Explore the microscopic world of our forests, homes and bodies by Keith Seifert is out now (£ 18.99, Greystone Books).

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