Is Fungus As Gross As You Think It Is?

Most people see fungus as gross, but several strains of it could hold the key to fighting illnesses like TB, smallpox, and even the flu!

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The kingdom of Fungus is a separate classification of life that's neither plant nor animal nor bacteria that includes organisms like mold, yeast, and mushrooms. While they may be in a kingdom all by themselves, their existence is intertwined with many other organisms; nearly all plants have some sort of symbiotic relationship with fungus. Mycologist Paul Stamets calls the underground network of fungus "nature's Internet". They connect plants and facilitate the exchange the nutrients they need to thrive. Fungus also plays vital roles in decomposition of animals and might even be the key to saving the bees and treating disease.

A recent study published in the journal Current Biology found that the Brazilian Bee needs a type of fungus to survive. Researchers noticed a white fuzzy fungus growing in a colony. They thought it was invasive until they noticed all 30 of their hives had it. In their experiments, they raised a group of bee larva in an environment with the fungus and a group without the fungus. They found that the survival rate of those larva with the fungus was 72 percent, while the survival of the bees raised without it was only 8 percent. Stamets is determined to save as many genomes of fungus in the Pacific Northwest as possible because he believes that some mushroom species could have medicinal properties. But with climate change and clear cutting of forests species of fungus might be disappearing before we can find them, taking their medicinal secrets with them.

Stamets also believes that fungus holds the answer to the massive bee die off known as colony collapse disorder, which we discussed in this episode of DNews. Many bee keepers find a parasite called the the varroa mite could be responsible. The mite carries viruses and it's the virus that can destroy entire colonies in just a few short years. Stamets thinks that fungus is the answer: an overuse of antifungal agents used to treat crops actually damages the fungus that colonies need. Early research show evidence that fungus helps bees by attacking the things that make them sick. They found that a type of fungus that usually eats up wood, reduces viruses in the bees, and another fungus could kill the mites directly. Stamets already found several strains of fungus that could turn into life saving medicine. One of the most important drugs of all time, penicillin, came from a fungus, and he's found that several strains of a fungus called agarikon might have resistance to certain illnesses like TB, smallpox, and the flu according to research.

Learn More:

Plants Talk To Each Other Using An Internet of Fungus (BBC)
"It's an information superhighway that speeds up interactions between a large, diverse population of individuals. It allows individuals who may be widely separated to communicate and help each other out. But it also allows them to commit new forms of crime. No, we're not talking about the internet, we're talking about fungi."

Return of the Fungi (Mother Jones)
"Stamets believes that unlocking agar­i­kon's secrets may be as important to the future of human health as Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillium mold's antibiotic properties more than 80 years ago."