CLOSE
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Paul Mannix, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
arrow
Animals
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."
nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
technology
Don’t Rely on an App to Identify Which Mushrooms You Can Eat
iStock
iStock

Mushroom hunting is a dangerous sport. The differences between deadly and delicious mushrooms can be subtle and hard to spot, and it's not a verdict that should be left up to guessing. Earlier this year, 14 people in Northern California became sick after eating foraged "death cap" mushrooms, and three had to have liver transplants.

An app called Mushroom claims to be able to identify whether a mushroom is safe or toxic through artificial intelligence. However, as The Verge reports, experts say an app isn't a foolproof way to identify mushrooms, and users could be putting themselves in danger by relying on it.

Some mushrooms need to be touched and smelled to identify whether they are a truly safe-to-eat species or if they're a similar-looking toxic variety, a mushroom expert told The Verge. And artificial intelligence working solely off images won't be able to tell the difference. As one environmental scientist put it on Twitter, the app's shortcomings could have deadly results.

In response to the uproar, the app seems to have been edited to focus just on the lucrative practice of truffle-hunting. The new app's description is a confusing liability warning: "The app is intended for the general interest truffle hunter as a reference guide who is [sic] looking to hunt and sell truffles locally. The app is not intended for use when foraging for wild food and we strongly recommend you do not handle or consume wild mushrooms." In other words, use it as a reference guide if you want to sell truffles, but don’t eat them. While truffles aren't toxic, there are species of "false truffles" that are poisonous, so probably don't rely solely on artificial intelligence for those, either.

There are several other mushroom-hunting guide apps, but they mostly regurgitate information that you would find in books on the subject. Getting an illustrated guidebook is most experts' recommended method for safely foraging for mushrooms. So please, if you want to become a mushroom hunter, ditch the apps, hire a guide, take a class, or, at the very least, buy a good book. Don't simply trust the 'bots.

[h/t The Verge]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios