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Fungal sex, holy water, and chest infections - oh my

Copyright: Pixabay (Creative Commons CC0)

Did you know fungi have sex - and are especially active on porridge?

A group of mycologists at The University of Nottingham are investigating the molecular and physiological processes that control sexual reproduction in ascomycete fungi.

Derived from the Greek askos meaning ‘skin bag’, ascomycetes are spore-shooting fungi. The asci (or ‘skin bag’), from which this group of fungi inherits its name, are sexual spore-bearing cells where the fungus’ spores are released. The group’s aim is to understand the sexuality and asexuality in fungi so the sexual cycles can be manipulated and turned into valuable tools for biotechnological and medical purposes.

Copyright: George Ashton
George Aston and the lab group from The University of Nottingham on their annual walk to the Peak District. Copyright: George Aston

For UK Fungus Day, we spoke to George Ashton, a BBSRC-funded PhD student from the Nottingham group exploring fungal sex, to tell us more about this bizarre research.

“I quite literally look for sex in fungi”, laughed George. “I’m looking at the core biology of fungal sex, and how this can exploit this process to do weird and wonderful things.”

Copyright free (Creative Commons CC0)
A western-style aspergillum, or holy water sprinkler. Copyright free (Creative Commons CC0)

“The particular fungi I’m interested are the Aspergillus species. Aspergillus fumigatus, for example, was thought to be entirely asexual, but previous work in our lab found it did indeed have a sexual cycle.”

First catalogued in 1729 by Italian priest-turned-botanist Pier Antonio Micheli, the Aspergillus genus reminded Micheli of an aspergillum - a holy water sprinkler. Micheli has since been dubbed the founding father of scientific mycology.

“Specifically, we found that Aspergillus fumigatus’ sexual activity increased when it was cultivated on oatmeal agar - which is essentially porridge. So you never know how you’re going to discover it.”

The Aspergillus genus is the name for a group of moulds, and is of particular importance as some species can cause infections in humans and animals.

“Another aspect of my project is to develop a method for identifying unknown resistance genes against treatments in aspergillosis infections.”

Copyright: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services
The conidiophore of the fungal organism Aspergillus fumigatus. Copyright: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services

Aspergillosis is the term used to describe diseases caused by the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus - one of the many species of Aspergillus. Usually affecting the respiratory system, aspergillosis appears in a variety of ways, including infection and growth of the fungus in the respiratory system, as well as triggering allergic responses. You can contract aspergillosis if you inhale tiny particles from the Aspergillus fungus.

“Aspergillosis is relatively uncommon in the UK, but people who already suffer from respiratory conditions are more likely to be sensitive to the fungal spores, making pre-existing conditions worse.”

Approximately one in five people in the UK suffer from asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or another long-term respiratory illness, according to the British Lung Foundation. With these numbers, aspergillosis poses a serious health risk to those already suffering.

“Hopefully my research will make a positive impact in helping develop mechanisms to prevent this.”

Finally, we asked George if he had a favourite fungus.

Copyright: Nicolas Merky by CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
Ophiocordyceps sinensis (left) growing out of the head of a dead caterpillar. Copyright: Nicolas Merky by CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

“Yes I do”, said George, “it’s called Ophiocordyceps sinensis”, said George.

Also known as the Caterpillar fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis grows on insects, and is typically found in the mountainous regions of Tibet and Nepal. The fungus essentially operates as a parasite, growing on a host insect such as the larvae of Ghost Moths, and produces a fruiting body. The subsequent fruit is sometimes harvested for herbal medicines, but also contains high levels of arsenic.

UK Fungus Day features in the Royal Society of Biology’s Biology Week 2017. To find out more about events and activities happening near you for Biology Week 2017, visit: Royal Society of Biology: What's on in Biology Week 2017.

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Tags: fundamental bioscience fungi biology research feature