Inspired living

Mushroom mechanism


We have a fascination with the small; somehow “nano” has become a prefix that equates with “better”. Making things smaller and dissecting things doesn’t always actually get us closer to understanding things. Sometimes you can have all the components laid out before you and yet be no closer to an awareness of how the “whole” operates. There are times though when understanding the minutiae elevates your understanding and that is the case in a new study which has discovered how oyster mushrooms can destroy harmful cells.

We know that many organisms, from fungi to bacteria to plants to animals, all destroy harmful cells by punching holes in the invader’s cell wall. The hole disrupts the separation between the outside world and interior of the invading organism and destruction is the result. Yet we don’t know how those holes are made…until now.

For the new study the researchers used x-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy to examine how oyster mushrooms punch holes in the cell walls of parasites. Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are an edible species that grows on trees and feeds off parasites like roundworms.

The research found that oyster mushrooms use a protein called pleurotolysin to punch a hole in the parasite cells walls. The protein achieves this by repeatedly folding and unfolding, so the pleurotolysin acts like a fist effectively jabbing the cell wall until it breaks.

Discovering this mechanism opens a whole world of possibilities medically. It is believed that in humans a protein called perforin acts in the same was as pleurotolysin and if we can stop the folding and unfolding we may be able to treat autoimmune disease. The whole-punching technique could also be applied to agriculture and help crops ward off pests hence lowering the need for pesticides.

There is plenty of research still to be done to understand how this action can be harnessed but for now we are at least a step closer to understanding how mushrooms punch above their weight.


Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.