Hook, Line, and Sinker: Rise of the Killer Mushrooms

By Nathan Smith

Pleurotus ostreatus, or the oyster mushroom, is a common edible mushroom. As much at home in a stir fry or a soup, one would not expect this culinary baseline to be anywhere other than at the bottom of the food chain. Surprisingly this is not the case, as the oyster mushroom is a stealthy and efficient predator of nematodes.

Pleurotus ostreatus-- a killer in disguise?

Pleurotus ostreatus— a killer in disguise? (Credit Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)

Nematodes, a type of worm, are infamous agricultural pests. The damage caused by these miniature beasts has been estimated at $US80 billion per year, though this is believed to be a severe underestimate as many growers are unaware of them. They even present a threat to the cultivated mushroom industry, being a renowned pest of button mushrooms, so how is it that they fall prey to the oyster mushroom?

The answer is one of ingenuity on the part of the fungus. Unable to chase the nematodes, mushrooms are notoriously sessile, it instead lays a trap. It secretes a toxin which, upon contact with a nematode, proceeds to immobilise the worm in as little as 30 seconds. Fungal hyphae, attracted to the (still alive) nematode through host leakage products released by immobilisation, penetrate one or more of the nematode’s orifices and proceed to digest it.

The unrelated fungus Arthrobotrys also hunts nematodes, but through a completely different mechanism. Instead of stunning its host, it captures it in a hyphal lasso. Known as a constriction ring, this consists of a hypha fused with itself to form a three-celled ring about 20-30 microns in diameter. If, and when, a nematode enters the ring, it triggers the three cells to expand rapidly (within 1/10th of a second) and trap the nematode.

Killer fungi aren’t just of academic interest either. The hunting abilities of fungi, particularly the oyster mushroom, make them potential effective and green bio-control agents. Indeed, initial tests have found the oyster mushroom effective at controlling the Sugar Beet Nematode (Heterodera schachtii), through field tests have yet to be carried out.

It appears that fungi aren’t just passive members of the woodland scenery but rather edible guardians protecting against the nematode threat.

The Little Fungus that Could

By Nathan Smith

Deep in the dark depths of fungal taxonomy there lies a phyla known as the Glomeromycota. Members of this phyla are all obligate symbiotes, unable to support themselves independently and requiring a photosynthetic partner to provide organic carbon to them in return for gifts of phosphorous and nitrogen. For all bar one, this photosynthetic partner is a terrestrial plant; the symbiosis being better known as Arbuscular Mycorrhization and which upwards of 80% of angiosperms (flowering plants) are capable of engaging in.

The exception to this Golden Rule of the Phyla? A species known as Geosiphon pyriformis which instead forms a relationship with the cyanobacteria, specifically the species Nostoc punctiforme.

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Geosiphon:Nostoc symbiosis; Geosiphon spores inset
(credit Schuessler Lab)

The Geosiphon:Nostoc symbiosis appears to be unique in nature as the only example of an endosymbiosis between a fungus and a bacteria.  Adding to its mystery, it has so far been reported to have been found only 6 times in the wild in a small region of eastern Germany and Austria.

In contrast to Arbuscular Mycorrhization, where the fungal partner invades the cells of the plant to create an exchange interface, the cyanobacteria are taken in by the fungi, surrounding them with a unicellular structure known as a ‘bladder’ that can grow up to 2mm in length.

The exchange of nutrients is also different than in Arbuscular Mycorrhization. With the exception of nitrogen and carbon, all of the cyanobacteria’s nutritional needs must be met by the fungus. In return, the fungus receives organic carbon and nitrogen.

It is possible that Geosiphon:Nostoc symbiosis represents an important step in fungi being able to form symbiotic relationships with plants; it’s also possible that the Geosiphon:Nostoc developed out of the wider spread Arbuscular Mycorrhiza symbioses.

Either way it’s an interesting story of one fungus breaking the mould.

Ash Dieback: What’s causing the rise in plant diseases?

by Nathan Smith

Ash Dieback is the latest craze sweeping the nation, and by ‘craze’ I of course mean ‘plant disease’. Like Dutch Elm disease before it, it threatens to destroy thousands of iconic trees and restructure the shape of British woodland.

Caused by the fungus Chalara Fraxinea, Ash Dieback was first noticed in Poland in 1992, though it is thought to have originated somewhere in Asia. It affects the crown of the tree (the bushy top bit) and causes it to die back, although it may not kill a mature tree for a number of years. Even then it is often the case that when a tree is killed it is through an opportunistic infection. C. Fraxinea may not kill, but it does significantly weaken the tree.

AshAttributedSo what’s to blame? Despite fears that the fungus may have come to the UK via infected plants in nurseries, the current view is that it came in the wind from Europe (at least in the majority of cases of the disease). Whilst this may seem good news (particularly for the people running the nurseries), it causes us to reach a depressing conclusionwe cannot ‘stop’ the disease. The reasoning behind this is that most plant diseases can be controlled in the early stages of an outbreak via selective removal of plants. These techniques will probably not work now: we are in the middle of a full blown Europe-wide pandemic and even if we could remove the disease from the UK, it could still come back on the wind from across the seas. This may all sound rather despairing, and work is being done to try and reduce the ecological damage, but the truth is the models still predict that in 10-20 years time the majority of ash trees will be infected, if not already dead.

In a world of increasing globalisation, ensuring plant security from biological threats is almost impossible. Whether from the soil on a backpacker’s shoe or on a tree imported from afar, new microbes will always be brought into environments they have not come across before. Ash Dieback is not the first major tree disease to affect the UK and it’s probably safe to say it will not be the last.

For all those interested in some light reading, please find the link for the Government’s plan on tackling Ash Dieback: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/69620/pb13843-chalara-control-plan-121206.pdf