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Cassius V. Stevani/IQ-USP, Brazil
Cassius V. Stevani/IQ-USP, Brazil

Scientists Decode the Secret of Glowing Mushrooms

Cassius V. Stevani/IQ-USP, Brazil
Cassius V. Stevani/IQ-USP, Brazil
Artists' conception of multicolored glow. Image Credit: Cassius V. Stevani/IQ-USP, Brazil

We’re just going to come right out and say it: mushrooms are weird. They pop up without warning and they can change the weather. Many of them can also glow in the dark, and we don’t know why. Now, at least, we might know how, as researchers writing in the journal Science Advances reveal the bizarre, “promiscuous” process of fungal bioluminescence.

Lots of animals light themselves up, glowing or flashing to send messages, find prey, or flirt with potential mates. And scientists have a pretty good understanding of how that happens. When a pair of enzymes called luciferin and luciferase combine with energy and oxygen, the resulting chemical reaction makes a compound called excited oxyluciferin. But excitation is not sustainable, so the oxyluciferin releases its fizzy energy in the form of light.

Scientists hypothesized that fungi were probably doing something similar (although really, with fungi, anything is possible).

Neonothopanus gardneri in the dark. Image Credit:  Cassius V. Stevani/IQ-USP, Brazil

To learn more, an international team of researchers analyzed extracts from two glowing mushrooms, Brazil's Neonothopanus gardneri and Vietnam's poisonous Neonothopanus nambi.

They found that both species were sticking with the traditional luciferin-luciferase playbook … kind of. They were definitely making their own proprietary blend similar to excited oxyluciferin.

But the luciferase that the mushrooms were using was, in the scientists’ words, “promiscuous”—that is, it was happy to mix and mingle with multiple types of luciferin. And while the only bioluminescent fungi we know about all glow green, the researchers write that the luciferase’s indiscriminate approach could lead to a rainbow of lights in different colors and intensities.

“Future work on the isolation, characterization, and heterologous expression of the luciferase will stimulate the development of fungal bioluminescence–inspired applications,” the authors write. In other words, hey, we know about this bizarre thing now. We might as well use it.

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Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Scientists May Have Found a Cure for Deadly White-Nose Syndrome in Bats
Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

White-nose syndrome, a disease that affects insect-eating bats, is one of the most devastating wildlife diseases on record. But there may be a relatively simple way to stop it, according to new research: UV light.

As New Atlas reports, a new study from the U.S. Forest Service and the University of New Hampshire has found that only a few seconds of exposure to ultraviolet light causes permanent damage to the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, Pseudogymnoascus destructans. The results were published in Nature Communications on January 2.

White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in the United States and Canada over the past decade, according to the USGS. Bats infected by the fungus use more energy during their winter hibernation than healthy bats, meaning they might run out of their energy reserves and die before spring comes. The infection causes dangerous physiological changes including severe wing damage, weight loss, and dehydration.

The P. destructans fungus can grow only in temperatures ranging from 39°F to 68°F, so it infects bats only when they're hibernating. But it's also hard to treat diseased bats as they hibernate, making it even more difficult for scientists to stop the disease. And stopping it is a big deal, not just for wildlife organizations but for governments and farmers, since the bats at risk are important predators that feed on crop-destroying insects. Previous research has shown that UV light can screen hibernating bats for white-nose syndrome—the skin lesions that form on the wings of infected bats glow orange-yellow under UV light—but this is the first study to show it can also be a treatment.

The researchers exposed six closely related Pseudogymnoascus species to UV light for a few seconds to see how the fungi would react. (P. destructans was the only pathogenic species involved.) They found that P. destructans lacked a key enzyme that helps it repair the DNA damage inflicted by exposure to UV light. Whereas other species weren't affected by the light, P. destructans exposed to a low dose of UV light had only a 15 percent survival rate. When that dosage was doubled (to what was still a moderate dose), the species had less than a 1 percent survival rate.

This extreme sensitivity to UV light could be a way for scientists to battle white-nose syndrome. But first they'll have to test the effects of the light on infected, hibernating bats, instead of just working with samples of the fungus in the lab. It's possible that the light could damage the bats' skin, killing off important species in their microbiome, or have some other unintended effect. But even as a preliminary finding, this is a hopeful step.

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Paul Mannix, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Scientists Improve Drug Safety—for Penguins
Paul Mannix, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Paul Mannix, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Penguins are adorable. Their infections are a lot less cute. Fortunately, scientists may have figured out how to safely knock out at least one deadly fungal disease. The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine. Fungi in the genus Aspergillus have all kinds of strange talents. They turn up in the pantry as black mold—and in the refrigerator, as key ingredients in soy sauce and lemon-flavored drinks. Some enzymes derived from these fungi can help people with celiac disease digest gluten. But others can also make people and other animals, including penguins, very, very sick. Avian aspergillosis can lead to chronic and acute respiratory infections. The disease strikes wild and captive birds all over the world, but is especially common among African penguins in zoos, refuges, research centers, and aquaria. For a while, those penguins were treated with a medication called vitraconazole. Then the fungus evolved a resistance. There's another option: a second drug called voriconazole, which has been used successfully to cure aspergillosis in other birds. But penguins aren't other birds. They've got their own peculiar bodies and metabolisms. A dose that's good for the goose may be too much for the penguin. To determine how much voriconazole a penguin should take, researchers enlisted 18 penguins at a New Jersey aquarium in two separate trials. They tried the birds on various dosing schedules and quantities, then tested their blood plasma to see how their bodies absorbed the drug. The scientists then took all that information and fed it into a computer model, which allowed them to calculate how quickly and efficiently the average African penguin could metabolize the medication. They arrived at a concentration of 5 milligrams per kilogram of penguin body weight, once a day. Lead author Katharine Stott is an expert in translational medicine at the University of Liverpool. "Although this project was a somewhat unusual one for our group," she said in a statement, "the problem it presents is common: how can we better understand dosing strategies to optimize the use of antimicrobial agents?" Stott noted that her group's methods could carry over into other small patients as well: "The project also dealt with an issue commonly faced when trying to design pediatric treatment regimens in that dosing requirements are not always proportionally related to patient size."

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