MEDIC­I­NAL FUN­GUS

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Fungi have a tit­il­lat­ing sex-life with up to 28,000 sex­ual iden­ti­ties to choose from, as well as sex-free pro­cre­ation. That makes things tricky for my­col­o­gists, as Kathie Hodge from Cor­nell Univer­sity found in 1994.

When she and her stu­dents went mush­room hunt­ing in the woods of Ithaca in New York, they found a mys­te­ri­ous fun­gus sprout­ing from the corpse of a bee­tle grub. It was iden­ti­fied as C. sub­ses­silis, a mem­ber of an in­sect- eat­ing group of fungi known as Cordy­ceps. The sur­prise came when Hodge ger­mi­nated the spores. They ap­peared to de­velop into a to­tally dif­fer­ent species, the mould Tolypocla­dium. In fact, what Hodge dis­cov­ered is that mouldy Tolypocla­dium is the asex­ual form of in­sect de­vour­ing C. sub­ses­silis. Tolypocla­dium is fa­mous as the source of the im­muno­sup­pres­sant drug cy­closporine. Dis­cov­ered 47 years ago, the drug sin­gle-hand­edly made or­gan trans­plants pos­si­ble. Thanks to Hodge’s wood­land dis­cov­ery, sci­en­tists are now fos­sick­ing in dead in­sects for the next gen­er­a­tion of im­muno­sup­pres­sant drugs.

CREDIT: STEVE AXFORD

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