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Mushrooms have a bad reputation but they're really quite invaluable

Far from being killers, most fungi play a central role in providing food and medicine

A still from 'The Last of Us'. The chances killer mushrooms or fungi leading to an apocalypse are exceedingly slim.
A still from 'The Last of Us'. The chances killer mushrooms or fungi leading to an apocalypse are exceedingly slim. (File photo)

It’s been over a month since news emerged of a mushroom researcher from Kolkata being infected by a fungal infection that usually affects roses, but I still get panicked messages that read, ‘Did you hear about the old guy attacked by a killer mushroom?’

Let's rewind to 30 March, when multiple news articles emerged, recounting the bewildering story of a fungus researcher who fell ill after coming into contact with a fungus previously known to infect plants. The narrative unfolded like a gripping thriller: An elderly man, dedicated to studying plant pathogens, was struck by flu-like symptoms and went to see a doctor. A medical team conducted numerous tests to identify the microbial culprit responsible for this peculiar infection, but all came back negative. Perplexed, they turned to the World Health Organization (WHO) for further analysis. 

Also read: How India is discovering the magic of mushrooms

Researchers at the WHO meticulously examined the sample and finally unveiled the true cause of the infection—the Chondrostereum purpureum fungus, colloquially known as silver leaf disease. This fungus, previously observed exclusively in plants like the common rose, earned its name from the deep silver colour it imparted to the leaves as the infection progressed. Naturally, this revelation sent shivers down the spines of readers, evoking thoughts of an impending zombie apocalypse akin to the popular TV show The Last of Us, where a fictional Cordyceps fungus turns humans into flesh-eating monsters. 

For those unacquainted with the fungal world, an unknown fungus infection can be a terrifying concept. However, it is crucial to consider the pieces of information conveniently omitted by the articles that sensationalized this case. Firstly, this incident occurred over two years ago. Moreover, the man mentioned in the article made a complete recovery within a span of two months once the cause of the infection was identified. 

Furthermore, while this news story grabbed attention, it is essential to remember that among the hundreds of mycologists worldwide who study fungi, this was a singular case. More people perish from selfie-related accidents every year than succumb to novel fungal infections. Statistics from the Wikipedia page on “List of selfie-related injuries and deaths” reveals that there were 379 reported cases of selfie deaths globally compared to just one case of human infection from silver leaf disease. So, should we be trembling at the thought of fungi, or perhaps exercise caution with our smartphones?

Experts in the field of fungi suggest that the man's constant exposure to significant amounts of the fungal spores, due to his profession, played a pivotal role in him getting infected. In essence, this is yet another example of misinformation being sensationalized for the sake of clickbait.

While we are on the subject, it is time to revisit the popular TV show The Last of Us. This post-apocalyptic series revolves around a global outbreak of the Codyceps fungus, inspired by the real-life Ophiocordyceps genus. What makes this fungus particularly intriguing is its ability to manipulate the behaviour of its hosts, compelling them to perform tasks they would never undertake under normal circumstances. However, this is fiction—real-life Cordyceps mushrooms are highly specific to their hosts and have never been found to infect mammals, let alone humans. Professor David Hughes, an entomologist from Penn State University who specializes in Cordyceps fungi, affirms that our complex central nervous systems and robust immune responses make us impervious to such infections. Thus, the chances of The Last of Us becoming a reality are exceedingly slim.

Interestingly, Cordyceps did make headlines in 1993, albeit in a vastly different context. That year, the Chinese Women's Olympic Running Team astounded the world by breaking three world records. Their remarkable achievements sparked suspicion, leading to thorough investigations, including drug tests. The results were unequivocal – they had not used banned substances. So, what was their secret? As it turns out, the athletes had been consuming extracts of Cordyceps militaris, a species of Cordyceps that has since been scientifically proven not only to enhance athletic performance but also to combat stress and balance the immune system. 

This revelation underscores the treasure trove of medicinal compounds found in mushrooms. In fact, there are over 2,000 edible mushroom species with documented medicinal properties. Take Hericium erinaceus, commonly known as Lion's Mane. This edible mushroom contains compounds known as erinacines and hericinones, which stimulate the regrowth of nerve cells. Clinical trials involving extracts from this mushroom have shown promising results in patients suffering from degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia, with notable improvements in cognition and overall quality of life.

Another highly regarded mushroom is Ganoderma lucidum, better known as Red Reishi, which is revered as the "herb of immortality" in Chinese culture. It has been the subject of more than 45,000 scientific studies worldwide. It has demonstrated efficacy in treating a wide range of health conditions, including stress, anxiety, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. Remarkably, this mushroom is also being utilized to develop biodegradable alternatives to plastic packaging, as well as mushroom-based leather, making it an eco-friendly solution to pressing environmental concerns.

Despite what the Silver Leaf Disease scare and The Last of Us try to tell us, mushrooms are invaluable. Fungi play a critical role in breaking down waste, recycling nutrients, providing us with food and medicine, and facilitating communication among trees in forests. So, let’s celebrate these remarkable organisms and spread love and appreciation for their crucial role in our world. Whether it's by incorporating more mushrooms into our diets or sharing captivating mushroom images on social media, every small effort helps rectify the misconceptions that have unfairly tarnished their reputation. 

Jashid Hameed is an avid mycophile and one of the co-founders of Bengaluru-based functional mushroom brand Nuvedo which specializes in the cultivation and extraction of exotic medicinal mushrooms.

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