When you think about fungi and mold, your brain generally goes directly to the fuzzy bread sitting on your counter, or perhaps the deadly black mold that always shows up in the news, right? We as a society have been conditioned to have a negative reaction to mold, which in some cases can be life saving; however, as a result most people don’t have any idea that a good chunk of the medicines they are taking have been derived from the molds and fungi they fear.
One of the most well known examples of medicines being created from fungi is penicillin. Penicillin is a very well known antibiotic that has had vast success since its discovery in 1928 in curing a variety of bacteria based diseases such as; chlamydia, stomach ulcers, tooth abscesses, strep throat, scarlet fever, staph infections, Lyme Disease, Typhoid Fever, Gas Gangrene, and Necrotizing Fasciitis (the literal flesh eating bacteria). Given the nature of medicine around the world and that it’s impossible that we know every single time a doctor prescribed penicillin, it is nearly impossible to know how many lives have been saved by penicillin since its discovery but the rough estimate is between 80,000,000 and 200,000,000 lives.
A quick history on penicillin and its discovery; in the late 1920’s a scientist named Alexander Fleming was doing some experiments studying a bacteria called staphylococci and after leaving his petri dishes alone for a period of time he came back to find that a fungus had contaminated the dishes leaving a ring of space clear of bacteria around the growth. He suspected that the fungus had something to do with the lack of bacteria in that area and after some time and much collaboration he isolated the substance known as penicillin which was then converted into an ingestible pill to fight bacterial infections in humans.
All known antibiotics have individual mechanisms and work in specific ways, some working more similarly than others to prevent bacteria from growing or spreading. Penicillin targets the cell wall of the bacteria, causing stunted growth of the cell wall to occur until the insides become too much for the cell wall to hold resulting in the cell exploding. Despite the fantastic results of penicillin in the beginning of its usage and even to this day, overuse of antibiotics as a group has caused resistance to build up in the disease causing bacteria creating resistant strains. The way this works is quite simple really, at the most basic level what happens is, the antibiotic will kill most of the bacteria infecting the host but there will be certain mutants in the batch that the antibiotic will not be able to kill. This is not usually enough bacteria to keep the host sick but those resistant, stronger mutants will then reproduce creating a new slew of bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic used. Then when that strain of bacteria infect a new host, the same antibiotic will not be effective.
Due to the nature of antibiotic resistance, it is very important that new antibiotics that attack bacteria in different ways continue to be discovered. This brings society to the point of, where do we look? The answer lies in the fungi that we have been using for years as food; mushrooms.
There are quite a few examples of medicines created from plants and fungi, one example of an antibiotic discovered from fungi is Cephalosporin; Cephalosporin was discovered in the mid 1940’s by a scientist named Giuseppe Brotzu. Cephalosporin works similarly to Penicillin in that it attacks the cell wall of the bacteria and prevents it from growing at the rate that it should. The encompassing name of the antibiotics that work in this way by attacking the growth ability of the cell wall are called Beta-Lactam Antibiotics.
A different type of medicine that was discovered from fungi is griseofulvin. Griseofulvin is derived from fungi and act as a widely spread medicine however, unlike Penicillin and Cephalosporins, griseofulvin is an antifungal agent as opposed to an antibacterial. Interestingly enough, despite the differences griseofulvin has from its antibacterial counterpart, this compound was also discovered from a type of Penicillium mold in 1939 just like Penicillin. The difference between the two lies in the type of disease it goes after, instead of attacking bacteria, griseofulvin is typically used to treat many kinds of dermatophytoses (ringworm) in the nails and skin. It works by attacking the fungi’s ability to reproduce and divide and since the lifespan of fungi and bacteria is so short, without the ability to divide, the infection will die out. It is not uncommon for antibiotic and antifungal medicines to attack this particular part of the cell’s life cycle because logically, it is the most effective way to stop an infection from spreading.
Another medicine that was created from a fungus is cyclosporine; cyclosporine is an immunosuppressant, which means that it makes the immune system work less effectively than it typically would. This may seem counterintuitive in terms of curing diseases however with certain autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis where the immune system is too strong and attacks the body itself, this can help prevent the adverse side effects of an overactive immune system. This drug is also known to be used during and after bone and organ marrow transplants to help lower the possibility of transplant rejection.
As diseases and bacteria continue to evolve to create new ailments that we need to combat, we as a society must continue to develop new medicines. And while the technology surrounding medicine continues to advance at an impressive rate, we should never forget where medicines have been discovered in the past and look to fungi and mushrooms for inspiration. A majority of medicines that are in the market today are either derived directly from nature or imitate something directly out of nature and that’s no coincidence. These plants and fungi have had millions of years longer to develop resistance to diseases than we have, so since most of these resistances already exist, why reinvent the wheel? All we need to do is find them.
Author: Chelsea Hoel