SPACE is all the rage these days, what with billionaires competing to be the first to take a sub-orbital flight in their vanity spaceships and with nations competing to get to Mars with their latest selfie-taking robotic toys. Then there’s the moon, of course, and while we have been there before, there are now actual plans to construct proper bases on our closest celestial neighbour with Nasa aiming to start work on this in 2024 and China and Russia planning the same.
But space isn’t the most hospitable of places, and the problem with sending astronauts beyond the protection of earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field is that they are exposed to cosmic radiation that will prove deadly in a short period of time. The quest to solve this problem led scientists to look in one of the most radioactive places on earth: the melted reactors of Chernobyl. And here they found a life form that was thriving and multiplying not despite the radiation, but because of it. Known as Cladosporium sphaerospermum,this is a fungus that feeds on radiation, a process known as radiosynthesis, in much the same way as plants feed on light.
Intrigued, the scientists decided to put it to the test by taking it into space and growing it on the International Space Station where they found that a thin film of this fungus did in fact manage to absorb some of the deadly cosmic radiation. While this is by no means a silver bullet, it does indicate what may be possible in the future with astronauts and space colonists cultivating the fungus on space suits and structures to add an additional layer of protection.
Back on earth, another fungus of the cordyceps group also promises to yield some benefits. This fungus, better known as the ‘zombie’ fungus, infects ants and takes over their nervous system forcing the ants to climb on top of plants before dying. Fungal stalks then grow out of the doomed ant’s head and shower spores over a large area, propagating themselves by infecting more unfortunate ants. Now, while this sounds like a wonderful premise for a horror movie, it also has potential benefits for humanity. That’s because these fungi contain a molecule called cordycepin which in turn switches on a protein AMPK which is called a ‘magic bullet for health’.
Here is a life form that thrives on radiation.
Animal testing shows that drugs that can switch on this protein can reverse some types of diabetes and protect against arterial and heart disease. However, it can also accelerate cell death and while that sounds bad (and usually is), there is hope that this trait can be harnessed to kill cancer cells, meaning that in the near future cordycepin can be added to the growing arsenal of anti-cancer treatments.
Traditional Chinese medicine has known about the properties of cordyceps for some time. One variety that infects caterpillars in Tibet is so prized that the caterpillars, with the fungus still attached, sell for up to three times their weight in gold. This fungus, known as ‘summer grass winter worm’ in Chinese, is touted as a treatment for cancer and aging as well as for flagging libidos.
As more evidence comes forth about the devastating effects of the use of poisonous pesticides including, but not limited to, the decimation of honeybee populations, the zombie fungus also holds the potential to usher in an age of ‘organic’ pest control. That is, until the fungus evolves enough to take over the minds of humanity and enslave us all which, given our track record, may not be the worst possible outcome.
Speaking of the mind, certain species of mushrooms may also hold the key for mental health treatment, especially addiction, trauma and PTSD. The ‘magic’ mushroom in question is psilocybin cubensis, the psychedelic properties of which have led to its classification as an illegal drug in most countries. But that’s changing now as the therapeutic properties of this mushroom become better known.
In 2018, the FDA granted permission to research these mushrooms as a treatment for depression. A year later the world-renowned Johns Hopkins unveiled its Centre for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research where psilocybin will be evaluated as a possible treatment for addiction and substance abuse as well as PTSD and even Lyme’s disease among other conditions and ailments. Thus far, clinical trials at John Hopkins have shown results ‘four times larger’ than those of traditional antidepressants currently available.
Now, Yale, Mount Sinai hospital and Berkeley have also established, or are in the process of establishing, research centres and the US state of Oregon has made psilocybin legal for mental health treatment in supervised settings. Again, this is not so much a discovery as it is a rediscovery as native populations in the Americas have long known about the uses and potential benefits of these and related species of mushrooms.
From outer space to inner space, the key to survival and well-being may be lurking in a fungus among us.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2021