Mushrooms have taken a deadly toxin from a mysterious source

Three mushrooms known as destroying angel, death dapperling and funeral bell all have one thing in common: alpha-amanitin, a fabulously ...


Three mushrooms known as destroying angel, death dapperling and funeral bell all have one thing in common: alpha-amanitin, a fabulously deadly toxin. If you eat one of these mushrooms, symptoms may not appear for several hours. But soon enough, the toxin begins to wreak havoc on your body’s ability to transcribe genes. Around the fourth day after consumption, your liver and kidneys begin to fail. After about a week, you may well die.

This weird deadly has a mystery at its heart: these mushrooms belong to three distinct genera, or groups of fungal species, which are not closely related. How did they come to manufacture the exact same toxin?

In an article published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesscientists who have sequenced the genomes of 15 species of fungi from these three groups make an intriguing claim: the genes to make alpha-amanitin, rather than being inherited from a common ancestor of these groups, were transferred to them straight from an unknown, probably extinct fungus.

This type of gene transfer, called horizontal gene transfer, is common in bacteria, said Hong Luo, a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Botany in China and author of the new paper. Small fragments of DNA are passed from one microbe to another and then passed on to their offspring. However, growing evidence suggests that somehow genes can also move among complex multicellular creatures, perhaps with the help of pathogens. In April, another group of scientists reported that genes had moved between snakes and frogs living in the same forest habitat by hitchhiking on shared parasites. It sounds weird, but it might help explain some otherwise puzzling observations in the Tree of Life.

The team behind the mushroom paper already suspected that horizontal gene transfer had created the same toxins in these mushrooms. There were a few surprises, however, as they finished their research. They expected their insights into mushroom genetics to confirm that one of the groups had given the genes to the others. Instead, the gene toxin clusters all seemed equidistant from their origin.

“It intrigued us,” Dr. Luo said.

In discussion, the authors of the paper decided that the simplest explanation was that horizontal gene transfer had occurred – but not necessarily between these three groups.

“That’s when we started to think there must be another species, possibly extinct,” said Francis Martin, a scientist at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, l food and the environment and author of the article.

This ancient fungus is said to have possessed the genetic toolkit to make the toxin and transmitted it, through yet unknown means, to still-living varieties. The affected mushrooms are not his descendants – merely the carriers of a small packet of his genes, released like a message in a bottle, which give the mushrooms their extraordinarily toxic powers.

Scientists may never know much about this proposed donor for the toxin genes, if it existed. But researchers are curious as to why these three groups, of all fungi, received and used its heritage. Do toxins play a special role in the ecology of these particular fungi? Or are fungi particularly good at all the mysterious techniques that introduce genes from the environment into their own genomes?

As scientists learn more about how horizontal gene transfer works beyond bacteria, some of these answers may become clearer.

“We know it happens,” Dr. Martin said, “but we don’t know how.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Mushrooms have taken a deadly toxin from a mysterious source
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