The Mushroom Kingdom: Our Closest Relatives, Our Deadliest Enemies

Scientists researching ways to combat serious fungal infections in human beings have found that humans have much more in common with members of the Mushroom Kingdom than you might think.

We might as well already be living in the Mushroom Kingdom. There are roughly 1.5 million species of fungi on the planet Earth, from bread mold we avoid eating to the mushrooms we devour in our salads and on our pizza. Fungi spores are in the air we breathe and the food we eat. There are about a million nesting in your pillow right now.

Luckily for humanity, only a small handful of fungi cause infections, but those that do are extremely difficult to combat once they take root. The mortality rate among those who develop serious infections from the fungus Aspergillus , for instance, is around 50%. Why is it so difficult to cure a fungal infection?

Because the body thinks the fungal spores are us.

Science classes has historically lumped fungi together with plants, though they have much more in common with animals than our leafy green friends.

Both humans and fungi are eukaryotes, organisms whose cells carry complex structures inside their membranes, including a nucleus.

The Mushroom Kingdom: Our Closest Relatives, Our Deadliest Enemies

Bacteria, on the other hand, are simply a cell wall with DNA inside. It's the differences between bacteria cells and living cells that antimicrobial drugs use to destroy bacterial infection. The differences between fungi and humans are so slim that drugs that attack fungi cells have a good chance of attacking human cells as well.

There are differences, however, and in those differences could lay the key to triumphing over the Mushroom Kingdom. Since fungi have to travel outside the confines of the human body, they develop thick outer shells to protect them, and that protection could be their downfall.

"The fungal cell wall is the major difference between us and them," says Stuart Levitz of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. "But it can be their Achilles' heel. It's what protects them in the environment, but also what flags them as being different."

So there is hope. The key here is to realize that not all fungi are bad fungi. There's no reason to stop ordering mushrooms on your pizza, or stop using Toad in your Mario games. At the same time, don't get too complacent; if you happen to see a walking, talking mushroom, shoot first, ask questions later.


I, Mold
[ScienceNews]