The word fungus brings to mind gross images, for the most. Green cotton-like growths on breads, damp mildews and diseases. Not to make things more gross, but mushrooms are also fungi (the plural of fungus). Fungi do not usually conjure the image of something deadly or toxic to man, though certain mushrooms are known to be fatal; but toxins produces by a plain old desperately clingy mold can cause devastation in the human body – through biochemistry.
(Courtesy of www.icrisat.org)
Toxins are biochemicals that interact with other molecules in the body, creating havoc at the molecular level.
A recent study by University of California-Irvine scientists, published in Nature, discovered how a toxin produces by mold on nuts and grains that causes liver cancer, if ingested in large quantities, messes with the body. The highly potent toxin, called aflatoxin interferes with the functioning of a key cancer-preventing gene in humans, called the p53 gene, resulting in weakening of the immune system and abnormal functioning of the metabolic system. This causes an increased susceptibility to malnutrition and eventually to liver cancer.
According to a Science News article, aflatoxin is mostly prevalent the developing world like China, Vietnam and South Africa with 4.5 billion exposed to upto hundreds of times higher than safe levels of it.
The US Food & Drug Administration site lists aflatoxin as an unavoidable food contaminant since nuts and grains can become easy targets of fungal growth, but sets a low limit on the maximum allowable limit.
According to the Science News article, the UCI team also found a protein critical for the formation of aflatoxin. Called the PT protein, its discovery could lead to better ways to kill the aflatoxin alone,instead of the entire mold, which is expensive, costing hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide.
Learning about the world of the very small – the molecular and that of the invisible, demonstrated yet again how nature can act via tiny but powerful avenues to influence outcomes.Further, learning how nature accomplishes its goals, has been a source of inspiration for scientific research. The field of biomimickry is devoted entirely to the emulation of natural phenomena by the scientific community. From producing the most potent adhesive, to coming up with the most efficient shapes for various purposes, there is astonishing sophistication in the ways of the natural animal and plant (and now fungus) world.
So do we have to respect fungi now? Well, maybe at least enough to be more wary of them and flee when necessary.