There are estimated to be some five million species of fungi, from deadly mycotoxin producing molds to gastronomic delights worth hundreds of dollars per ounce. From the fungus singularly responsible for the global alcohol industry to a fungus responsible for jock itch.
The defining characteristics include the fact that they are eukaryotes – they have a cell nucleus unlike bacteria and possess specialized organelles that allow for the “burning of fuel;” that is, combining oxygen with sugars to produce energy. They are all sessile – they can’t get up and move around nor do they use sunlight like plants. As absorptive heterotrophs, they gain nutrients by digesting food externally and then absorbing it. By this function alone they are very important in recycling plant and animal matter.
On the positive economic side, the arguably most important fungus is yeast, specifically of the genus Saccharomyces, or Brewer’s yeast. The global market for alcohol is one to two trillion dollars per annum. There is evidence of wine production dating to circa 6000 BCE in eastern Europe. A minor side product of brewing is a one-hundred-year-old product called Vegemite, a mixture of leftover brewer’s yeast and some flavoring – Australians swear by it.
Some fungi known as smut can cause damage to plants and especially stored grains. An interesting example that plagued medieval Europe is ergot, Claviceps purpurae. This fungus can grow on rye and related grains and when the infected grain is consumed causes a condition known as Saint Anthony’s Fire. Chronic low-level ergot poisoning leads to gangrene with damage to extremities whereas acute poisoning results in headache, spasms, disturbances of the GI tract, convulsions, and psychosis. During the middle ages in Europe whole communities would have been occasionally affected. The last know outbreak of St Anthony’s Fire occurred in France in 1951.
Alkaloids from ergot were later used to produce a semi-synthetic derivative known as LSD – the hallucinogenic drug made famous by Timothy Leary in the 1960s. Other hallucinogens are known to occur naturally in several different species of mushrooms, They were traditionally used during religious ceremonies.
The Aztecs consumed a mushroom known as Teonanacatl, Pslyocibe mexicana. In Siberia a mushroom called Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria was similarly employed with a unique twist. In a Siberian ceremony the Shaman would consume the mushrooms, then because the active drug was not transformed, would serve his urine to acolytes. Drinking the urine produced the same effects as having consumed the mushrooms themselves.
Consumption of many wild mushrooms is capable of producing all sorts of untoward symptoms from minor GI problems up to an agonizing death. One edible, but it depends, mushroom is called the inky cap, Coprinopsis atramentaria. Consumption of this mushroom, common in both Europe and North America, is not a problem unless alcohol is consumed ant the same time or shortly thereafter.
The mushroom has a compound that interferes with the metabolism of alcohol. This causes a mildly toxic intermediate, acetaldehyde, which induces nausea and vomiting within minutes of consumption of alcohol. Not surprisingly another common name for this mushroom is tippler’s bane.
Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University. His website is Bob of the Ozarks, www.ozarker.org