You don't have to be a mycologist, or fungi scientist, to know some mushrooms are deadly. But mycologists are finding that poisonous mushrooms hold some interesting clues for future cures. Imitating the way mushrooms create toxins--and the poison's swift, targeted attack on the body--could lead to new medicines.
The Michigan State University researchers behind the discovery studied amatoxins, produced by the galerina marginata mushroom, among others. Amatoxins are no joke. After eating a galerina marginata, victims experience horrific stomach cramping, as the body tries to expel the poison. After a false remission the third day, the toxin targets the liver and kidneys again. Most mushroom-related deaths can be attributed to the amatoxin family.
If amatoxin was not toxic though, it would make a great medicine, the scientists realized. The poison targets a specific body part, absorbing quickly into the bloodstream. It doesn't lose potency when it's cooked or digested. Even its molecular shape is ideal. Excited by the prospect, the team zoomed down to the atomic level to figure out how mushrooms make toxins--and if the process could be reengineered for good purposes.
There's an elegant beauty in the toxin-creation mechanism. The toxin's ingredients sit within a long chain of molecules, strung along together, but not fully potent. Just like flour, water, oil, and yeast in a pantry need a chef to become bread, the poison relies on a specific enzyme within the mushroom called POPB to become a mature toxin.
POPB's ability to sort through a line of peptides, select a snippet, and transform it into a circular shape, fascinated researchers. These cyclic peptides, as they're called, are quite common in the pharmaceutical world where they're used to create new drugs.
With the POPB enzyme at the helm, scientists have a fast way to create molecular variations of amatoxins. Not every variant will be a cure--but some could be. The team has already created about a hundred different cyclic peptides with POPB's help. They anticipate making millions. From there, it will be a matter of testing to see whether these maybe-cures inspired by poisonous mushrooms can treat diseases, like cancer.