Monthly Archives: February 2010

Cows Threatened by Fungi Down Under

Down New Zealand way, the alarm has been sounded. Spore counts have gone through the roof (maybe “sky high” would be a better way to put it) out in the pastures and this spells trouble for those lumbering denizens of the fields–cows.

According to Fungus threat to dairy cows soars, by Richard Woodd:

The facial eczema threat to dairy herds has soared to critical levels in parts of Taranaki this week in perfect growing conditions.

Facial eczema is a disease which causes lowered production and sometimes death from liver damage. Fungal spores produced by the fungus Pithomyces chartarum growing on pasture produce a toxin which when ingested by cattle damage the liver and bile ducts.

The damaged liver cannot rid the body of wastes and a breakdown product of chlorophyll builds up in the body causing sensitivity to sunlight, which in turn causes inflammation of the skin. Exposed unpigmented or thin skin thickens and peels.

Pithomyces spores (courtesy of Bryce Kendrick and Mycolog)

That is a strange chain of events linking a fungus, the environment, and cow faces. Pithomyces is a genus of dematiaceous conidial fungi. The toxin in question is called sporidesmin.

Kikuyu Poisoning

In not too far away (from New Zealand) New South Wales, a fungus is also causing worry. It apparently isn’t the same one that causes the facial eczema, since the article Grass fungus can kill cattle, from the Tweed Daily News states:

“The fungus produces a toxin that irritates the third stomach, causing it to fail to perform its normal job of absorbing fluid,” he <a veterinarian> said.

“This causes a build-up of water in the main stomach or rumen, giving the cattle a bloated appearance. The weight of this fluid can be too much for the heart and lungs to bear.”

Strangely, this ailment is called “Kikuyu poisoning,” named after the grass the cows eat, even though the grass is actually good fodder, and it is only after a wet spell that the fungus grows on the grass causing it to become toxic.

Ug99 Makes the Technocultural Grade

A fungus has been deemed interesting and scary enough to grace the pages of Wired magazine along side Google’s search algorithm, the future of money, and a retrospective of the dotcom boom and bust. Way to go stem rust Ug99! Er…, make that “Oh drat. Starvation. That’s bad.”

Wheat Stem Rust on the Rampage

Thanks to a tweet from the Kamoun Lab (which was itself a retweet from someone else) the mycotwitterverse (why aren’t you in it?) got the heads up on Red Menace: Stop the Ug99 Fungus Before Its Spores Bring Starvation by Brendan I. Koerner, now appearing on the web and in the March 2010 print edition of the ubercool and informative Wired magazine:

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China.

It is a highly readable, entertaining and informative article.  Ug99 is a particularly worrisome strain of this devastating stem rust fungus, and it is great to see a high-profile mag like Wired calling attention to it.

The latest on Ug99:

Getting rust out of Africa

USDA stem rust website (sadly, a bit out of date)

Action plan to minimize impact of Ug99 stem rust in the United States (PDF)

Summary Slides of Ug99’s Spread and Areas of Vulnerability (PDF)

A variety of documents on Ug99 can be found at this ARS USDA website.

What stem rust (Courtesy of U.S. Federal Government)

Some Recent Notes On Morel Mushrooms

University of Illinois Offers Morel Hunting Workshop

The University of Illinois extension service will offer a morel mushroom hunting workshop on Tuesday, March 9, 2010 from 1-2:30 PM. According to Morel mushroom hunting workshop at the U of I Extension:

University of Illinois Extension Henderson-Mercer-Warren unit will offer a workshop on morel mushroom hunting at the Warren County Extension office, 1000 N. Main St., Monmouth. The presentation will be via the University of Illinois telenet system and local computer PowerPoint presentations, allowing live discussion between the instructor and gardeners throughout Illinois.

It would be interesting to find out how this sort of hybrid “webinar” format works out. Any attendees are invited to let us know.

Beer Company Introduces Curry Sauce with Morels

And now for some news from the pub. The Publican that is. According to Cobra Beer unveils the ultimate curry sauce, the brewery is celebrating “National Chip Week” (a fine British tradition no doubt), with the introduction of a curry sauce that includes in its ingredients real gold and morel mushrooms.

The sauce will be on sale all this week in London’s Cafe Spice Namaste restaurant where head chef Cyrus Todiwala helped Cobra develop the unique recipe, which includes gold leaf and other premium ingredients including Morel mushrooms worth £150 a kilo.

Scatter My Ashes Over My Favorite Morel Grounds

The recent obituary of Carl Edward Stewart notes his passion for the outdoors and mushroom hunting in particular. So great was his love of mushroom hunting that his ashes will be scattered over his favorite morel hunting grounds later in the spring. The spot has been identified only as being “somewhere north of the equator.”

Earl had a passion for the outdoors, centered around activities with family and friends at his beloved lake cabin in Minnesota. He had a special gift for building webs of connections with friends through ice fishing, acting as a judge at local bicycle races, and mushroom hunting. An accomplished mycologist, he was familiar with dozens of edible species. Earl pursued mushrooms with such zeal that it was not unusual to find him scratched and bleeding from crashing through the woods, yet smiling joyfully – morel mushroom in hand. His enthusiasm for introducing friends to mushroom hunting was matched only by his reticence in divulging the locations of his precious mushroom spots.

A true morel man, through and through.

Drug Companies Jostle Over New Nail Fungus Drug

Nail fungus (onychomycosis) affects more than 10 percent of the population in the U.S.  Although a variety of treatments exist, including home remedies (which seldom work), topical and oral pharmaceuticals, and even lasers, the ultimate cure has yet to be found.

That Darned Nail Fungus

Example of a fungal nail infection (Randen Pederson)

People don’t like having nail fungus. Although most insurance plans do not cover treatment (except in cases where other conditions exist that may lead to complications), there is still plenty of money to be made in providing a means for getting rid of it.

Pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. invested in a new topical treatment (dubbed AN2690) belonging to a smaller company called Anacor. Apparently Merck has been slow to develop it further so now Anacor is taking back complete control, while looking for other more helpful partners. According to Merck returning nail fungus drug to Anacor:

Drug giant Merck & Co. will return development and commercialization rights of a topical anti-fungal treatment to Anacor Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Palo Alto-based Anacor had played up its three-year-old partnership with Merck subsidiary Schering, which was responsible for a Phase III trial of AN-2690 to treat a nail and nail bed infection called onychomycosis. But Schering and Merck, which bought Schering last year, had delayed trial enrollment for more than a year.

Perhaps Merck decided it wasn’t so promising after all. That, or their number crunchers determined there are bigger gains to be had by focusing on other drugs first. Although the Anacor CEO has tried to put a positive spin on it, it looks like Merck has basically dumped Anacor.

Anacor Boron Technology

Boron is has an atomic number of 5 in the periodic table

Anacor is into boron-based small molecule therapeutics and indeed AN2690 contains boron as critical element. According to the AN2690 profile at the company website:

AN2690 has a novel mechanism of action that targets an essential protein synthesis enzyme, leucyl-transfer RNA synthetase, or LeuRS. This enzyme plays a pivotal role in fungal protein synthesis by attaching the leucine amino acid to transfer RNA, or tRNA. In addition, LeuRS also plays a key role in ensuring the correct synthesis of leucyl-transfer RNA. Our research has demonstrated that compounds that bind to the specific site on LeuRS involved in the synthesis of leucyl-transfer RNA also inhibit the attachment of leucine to tRNA, resulting in the inactivation of LeuRS and inhibiting protein synthesis within the fungal cell. The inhibition of protein synthesis leads to termination of cell growth or cell death, eliminating the fungal infection. We have shown that this inhibitory activity requires the presence of boron within the compound, as the replacement of the boron atom in AN2690 with a carbon atom inactivated the molecule.

Swimming with Mushrooms (or, the Fungal Life Aquatic)

Cover of Mycologia 102 (1): 2010, featuring an underwater basidiocarp

Word has been floating around the mycological community for awhile now about the discovery of mushrooms developing submerged in a fresh water stream in Oregon. Now the research on these mushrooms has come to full light with the publication of a paper in Mycologia:

Jonathan L. Frank, Robert A. Coffan and Darlene Southworth, (2010), Aquatic gilled mushrooms: Psathyrella fruiting in the Rogue River in southern Oregon, Mycologia 102 (1): 93-107.

The paper describes the observation and analysis of a  species of mushroom fruiting over an extended period in shallow flowing water. The authors of the paper suggest that this is a new species with the proposed name Psathyrella aquatica.

According to the paper’s abstract:

A species of Psathyrella (Basidiomycota) with true gills has been observed fruiting underwater in the clear, cold, flowing waters of the upper Rogue River in Oregon. Fruiting bodies develop and mature in the main channel, where they are constantly submerged, and were observed fruiting over 11 wk. These mushrooms develop underwater, not on wood recently washed into the river. Substrates include water-logged wood, gravel and the silty riverbed. DNA sequences of the ITS region and a portion of the ribosomal large subunit gene place this fungus in Psathyrella sensu strictonear P. atomata, P. fontinalis and P. superiorensis. Morphological characters distinguish the underwater mushroom from previously described species.

Discovering an Aquatic Mushroom

This certainly is an interesting find. I asked the corresponding author, Dr. Darlene Southworth of Southern Oregon State University,  if she was sure this was a new species and not a freak occurrence of some sort. She was quite sure. “A single mutation likely would not be sufficient to change the preferred habitat or even to widen the range of a habitat, nor to form a new species. A new species description requires morphological and genetic differences. We showed that in our paper.”

Southworth went on to add, “Many species of fungi, plants, and animals live in local areas as endemics so narrowness of sites does not prevent it from being a new species. It probably makes it more likely. We have found these fungi over a quarter mile stretch of the river above and below a waterfall so it is not likely to be all one ‘colony,’ that is, all connected by hyphae.”

One logical next step would be to attempt to complete the fungus’s life cycle both in the air and underwater in a laboratory setting.  According to Southworth, her team intends to do just that and she finds the prospect “pleasing.” This will probably take some time to work out. In the mean time, what’s next?

“One interesting next step is to find other sites, so wading upstream in the same river and its tributaries would be a task for next summer, ” she says.  “We also welcome observations from other river waders. We have followed up three reports of underwater fungi, but none have been Psathyrella. It’s just a matter of time.”

Another Mycologist’s Opinion

Britt Bunyard, Ph.D, consulting mycologist and editor of Fungi, had this to say about the research. “This is a great paper and the authors did everything exactly right in working up this fungus and didn’t rush to press. In the words of the great Orson Miller: one specimen is interesting; two is more interesting; three is a collection. Science should be based on collections; too often we have a “new species” named from a single specimen. These authors did everything right. They collected it many times over three years (at least); did the morphological work and did a good job with the DNA analysis. From ALL of this they determined this to be a new species.”

Dr. Bunyard goes on to wonder, “How does the fungus get upstream? Shedding spores in a swift flowing stream would mean you’re quickly going to migrate downstream and out of the stream. So, maybe there are aquatic invertebrates or other animals that carry them upstream. Perhaps the fungus relies entirely on animals for spore dispersal (zoochory) and frankly,  it would not surprise me.”

“A lot of aquatic invertebrates are grazers and “shredders” of organic material and fungi have been shown to be key parts of their diet or to be key in transforming the organic material into something they can use… maybe some of these creatures ingest the spores and vector them about in the aquatic environment. My own research has shown this to be case with some terrestrial mushrooms.”

Could There be Other Aquatic Mushrooms?

Overall, Dr. Bunyard agrees that this is an interesting report. Perhaps it will open up a whole new field of research in the way C.T. Ingold did with his discovery of aquatic hyphomycetes.  “Maybe there are lots more aquatic mushrooms,” says Bunyard, “…but, we simply never foray in the water. Psathyrella–again, the authors point this out–would be a good candidate genus to put forth as an aquatic species as there are many members in the genus that live in wet areas very near to water.”

A Different Take on the “Mushroom Lamp”

Simon Duff's mushroom floor lamp

Table lamps that look like mushrooms are nothing new. Several versions of such lamps are available, and they are usually intended as small table lamps or accent pieces.

However, a post at Geeky Gadgets caught my interest in a floor version of a mushroom lamp from Australian designer Simon Duff. Duff is known for creating stylish and practical furniture concepts for home or office, as well as for commercial or industrial use.

It’s not a brand new design, having been featured on furniture and design websites since it first appeared in 2006. According to Simon Duff’s website:

An example of ultra low wattage LED lighting technology, the Mushroom Floor Lamp uses just a fraction of the power standard light globes use. The adopted shape of a mushroom combined with turbine like gills is symbolic of the union between sustainable design and new technology assisting us to reduce the impact we have on our planet.

For a floor lamp it’s on the small side, but Simon defends its practicality. “The mushroom lamp is a floor lamp and is basically the size of a 1/2 metre cube,” he explains, “so its not really that small.”

The mushroom floor lamp in white

It certainly would make a striking addition to any living space. “It serves as a mood lamp and creates a lovely warm glow capable of lighting up a small room or corner effectively,” he says. “Its high output LED light source can also be dimmed to create different moods.”

Because it employs cool-operating LEDs it can be safely placed on any surface, wood, plastic, metal  or carpet. The mushroom floor lamp is being manufactured in a limited run of 200. However, according to Simon, “We always hold stock and have recently release a mini table mushroom that is approximately  half the size and available in a range of colours.”

How exactly does a designer get the inspiration to create such a product? “The idea to design this lamp literally just popped into my head one day,” says Duff, ” and it evolved as more of a personal quest to create a sustainable product that promotes the use of organic materials and new technology.”

“The lamp is primarily hand crafted and they are beautifully finished. I think every single sale has resulted in an reply email stating how happy our customers are with their purchase.”

If you need one it’ll set set you back about $1750 AUS.