THE UNEXPECTED MAGIC OF MUSHROOMS
Anderson is standing in an unassuming patch of woodland in Crystal Falls, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He is revisiting an organism living under the forest floor that he and his colleagues discovered nearly 30 years ago. This is the home of Armillaria gallica, a type of honey mushroom.
These common fungi are found in temperate woodlands all across Asia, North America, and Europe, where they grow on dead or dying wood, helping to speed up the decay. Often the only visible sign of them above ground are clumps of scaly, yellow-brown toad-stool-like fruiting bodies that grow up to 10cm tall.
Upon analysis, this fungi produced a surprising insight, one that could help us humans in our fight against one of modern medicines greatest foes – cancer.
The Canadian researchers discovered what may be the secret behind the Armillaria gallica’s extraordinary size and age. It appears the fungus has an extremely low mutation rate – meaning it avoids potentially damaging alterations to its genetic code.
As organisms grow, their cells divide into two to produce new daughter cells. Over time, the DNA in the cells can become damaged leading to errors, known as mutations, creeping into the genetic code. This is thought to be one of the key mechanisms that causes aging.
But it seems the Armillaria gallica in Crystal Falls might have some inbuilt resistance to this DNA damage. In 15 samples taken from distant parts of the forest and sequenced by the team, just 163 letters of the 100 million in the genetic code of Armillaria gallica had changed.
Anderson and his team believe the fungus has a mechanism that helps to protect its DNA from damage, giving it one of the most stable genomes in the natural world. While they have still to unravel exactly what this is, the remarkable stability of the genome of Armillaria gallica could offer new insights into human health.