The Very Cool Glow of Fungi
|March 15, 2010||Posted by Philip under Interview, Tid Bit|
A couple of months ago, I ran across a UK-based website–The Glow Fungi Project. The site and the project is from a company called NIPHT (Novel Imaging and PHotonic Technologies–”nifty” for short) out of Edinburgh, Scotland.
The company began offering kits of bioluminescent fungus in 2009 and plans to continue to provide kits for outdoor culture of Panellus stipticus in 2010. According to the company website:
Cultures are supplied on a specially formulated nutrient gel within a sterile Petri dish. So long as the culture is living it will emit bioluminescence, usually for several months. Interesting glowing objects can be created by applying stencils or permanent marker pens.
It looked interesting, so I decided to find out more about it.
The Glow Fungi Project
The Glow Fungi Project is the brain-child of Dr. Patrick Hickey who became interested in mycology after working on an art project at school. Hickey studied mycology at university where he learned much more about bioluminescence both in nature and as a biotechnology tool.
“I first witnessed fireflies in Italy and over the years have built up a collection of bioluminescent organisms including luminous bacteria and dinoflagellates–a type of marine algae–these are great for educational demonstrations,” explains Dr. Hickey. “The reason I developed bioluminescent fungi kits is that for years I have had many inquiries every week for people asking me to send luminous fungi cultures, and instructions on how to grow them, so I know there is a good market for this.”
When I first saw the images of the glowing cultures at the Glow Fungi Project, it reminded me of something I saw at the website of Fungi Perfecti a number of years ago. At that time, Stamets et al were touting a luminescent fungus for all kinds of purposes (mostly outdoor uses similar to what are suggested by NIPHT). I recall thinking at the time, that the fungus might be genetically engineered with luciferase, since the photos on the website indicated it glowed rather brightly. I asked Hickey about it.
“Paul Stamets was experimenting with Mycena chlorophos,” he said. “I used to have a culture of this species, however I did not have success in fruiting it. It was not engineered, nor are any of the bioluminescent fungi that I work with–they are all naturally occurring species.”
On the subject of genetic engineering, Hickey continued, “Scientists have managed to engineer fungi with marine and firefly luciferases (enzymes which make them glow), however they require a chemical substrate to be added to the growth medium, like a ‘fuel’ for bioluminescence.”
Luciferace genes have been inserted into the genomes of many organisms besides fungi, to include plants and even animals. Bioluminescence genes from jellyfish can do the same thing. There is probably nothing weirder than a glowing monkey.
Uses of Bioluminescent Fungi
Glowing fungi are no doubt very interesting and quite appealing to the eye, but do they have any practical uses? According to Dr. Hickey, “They are mostly a novelty, and for use an in an educational kit–phenomena like bioluminescence are great for getting people interested in science.”
However, he adds, “Bioluminescence is also a powerful tool in biotechnology since it is relatively easy to measure and quantify light from biochemical reactions and it is safe, as apposed to radioactivity which was often used as a bio-marker in the past. Currently we do not understand the mechanisms of bioluminescence in fungi–that is something we hope to unravel in the coming years. Luminous fungi have recently been employed as biosensors to detect pollution and toxicity–when the cells die, they stop glowing.”
Some other applications of glowing fungi described by Dr. Hickey include use of bioluminescent mycelium as markers by soldiers.
“I have also heard reports that the Bayaka pygmies dress up as forest spirits by tying leaves and branches colonized with bioluminescent fungi to their bodies. I have a film producer friend who is about traveling to see them in April and he hopes to capture the bioluminescence ritual.”
Other Mycological Projects in the Pipeline
Besides Glow Fungi, NIPHT has some other interesting projects underway. One of these is called MYCO-CYCLE, which involves utilizing fungi in environmental technologies, ranging from waste recycling to bio-fuels.
The company is investigating fungal strains capable of degrading printed waste paper, in particular those that can break down laser toner. “This is an exciting area of research and our goals are to develop bench-top assays for evaluating species before conducting more costly field trials,” says Hickey.
And on the Glow Fungi front, Hickey and his colleagues are working with a researcher who has discovered some of the “brightest fungi on the planet.”
“We hope to develop some kits using these too, ” he says. “I maintain academic links with the University of Edinburgh, working on fungal cell biology, in particular studying mechanisms of hyphal growth and understanding the transport of nuclei and organelles in the colony. I also have a passion for the interface between science and art – our latest project involves synchronizing sounds to movies of spores and mycelium.”
Shipping Glow Fungi
Although the glow fungi kits do not contain genetically modified organisms, I wondered what regulatory hurdles, if any, there are to shipping such fungi around the world.
“Our glow fungi products all come with instructions and are clearly marked with safety information,” Hickey explained. ” Currently the only species that we are selling is Panellus stipticus. It is classified as non edible, just like most ornamental plants. We decided not to sell Jack ’O’ lantern kits since this species is known to cause (non-fatal) poisoning and is sometimes mistaken for Chanterelles.”
The company can ship to countries outside of the UK, including Europe and the USA, however due to the fragile nature and limited shelf life of the glowfungi products, they are focusing their marketing on the UK for now.
Growth Conditions for Panellus stipticus
The glow fungi do best on hardwood substrates and temperature of between 20°C and 28°C appears to be optimal for bioluminescence. Adequate air exchanges, humidity and some day-light are required to induce fruiting.
“One of the great aspects of Panellus is that the fruiting bodies can last for over a month, continuing to glow,” Hickey explained.
Will the day soon arrive when people enthusiastically include bioluminescent fungi in their gardening and landscaping plans? We can only hope so.