If this sounds like the title of a bad movie to you, you’d be mistaken. From the itchy patch under your toes to the black mould between your bathroom tiles, fungi are quite literally everywhere. Of course, not all fungi are bad, and frankly, some of them are rather tasty too.
From the 80 (!) different species of fungi that can be found in a normal, healthy skin microbiome, to the yeasts used to brew your favourite beer or the Shiitake mushrooms you had in last night’s stir-fry, fungi are possibly the most underappreciated of Mother Nature’s powerhouses.
When Alexander Fleming discovered the world’s first broadly effective antibiotic substance in 1928 – which he named penicillin – it was described as “the single greatest victory ever achieved over disease”. And penicillin, you guessed it, is derived from the mould Penicillium rubens. Unassuming and undervalued, fungi really do have a lot going for them.
So how come 19 different fungi have turned up on the World Health Organisation’s list of global health threats? Just as the world is recovering from the viral COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO warns that fungal pathogens might turn out to be our next big threat. Suddenly, the plot of this year’s monster hit series The Last of Us seems less like science-fiction and more like science-possible.
“Since the 1970s, medically relevant fungi have been a growing problem,” explains medical molecular microbiologist Ferry Hagen from his office at the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute in Utrecht. “This is mainly due to increased globalisation and the fact that we have increasingly better technologies to treat diseases. For example, organ transplants emerged in the 1970s. And the number of anti-cancer therapies has also boomed.”
Treatments that mostly involve suppressing or even completely eliminating the immune system: our main defence against harmful fungi. The emergence of HIV in the 1980s (which attacks the immune system) has also left large swathes of the global population at risk of fungal infections, which can spread rapidly, like Candida auris did.
“This fungus was first found in the ear of a Japanese woman in 2009. After that, things moved very quickly; seemingly from nowhere, the fungus popped up on four different continents in a few years. And still, we have no idea how this multi-drug resistant fungus could suddenly appear.”
Unintentionally, it seems lifesaving therapies have paved the way for the emergence of potentially lethal fungal infections. With just a handful of antifungal treatments available, resistance lurks at every turn. What hasn’t helped is the widespread use of antifungals in agriculture continues Ferry.
“Recently, the minister of Health proudly proclaimed that the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry and agriculture has decreased by 70 per cent. But the use of antifungals has not fallen in the same period.” To make matters worse, the agricultural and horticultural sectors tend to use antifungals that match the few antifungal agents used in the clinic, which promotes resistance.
Global Food Security
Of course, healthy soil is essential to food production. And improving global biodiversity is a key driver here as it’s estimated that we’ll need to double the amount of food produced globally by 2050. The research done by the team at Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute is crucial to the health of our planet and its people.
Here, researchers investigate the huge range of possible applications that fungi pose to not only safeguarding global food production, but new medical treatments and even the biobased economy. Their collection of over 120,000 isolates is the most diverse living fungal collection in the world and is rich feeding ground for groundbreaking innovations.
In-house teams like the Fungal Physiology Group and the Fungal Natural Products Group are making huge strides in unravelling the mysteries of the fungus for a healthier, more sustainable world. The work done in Utrecht is, quite literally, lifechanging and attracts guest researchers from all over the world.
When will you be discovering the magical kingdom of the mushroom at Westerdijk?