In 1840, renowned English botanist George Gardner reported a strange sight from the streets of Vila de Natividade in Brazil: A group of boys playing with a glowing object that turned out to be a luminescent mushroom.
This is Neonothopanus gardneri. Credit: Cassius V. Stevani/IQ-USP, Brazil
They called it "flor-de-coco," and showed Gardner where it grew on decaying fronds at the base of a dwarf palm. Gardner sent the mushroom to the Kew Herbarium in England where it was described and named Agaricus gardneri in honor of its discoverer. The species was not seen again until 2009.
San Francisco State University researcher Dennis Desjardin and colleagues have now collected new specimens of this forgotten mushroom and reclassified it as, Neonothopanus gardneri. Findings are now online and scheduled to be published in the November/December print issue of Mycologia.
They hope that careful study of the Brazilian mushroom—which shines brightly enough to read by--and its other bioluminescent cousins around the world will help answer the question of how and why some fungi glow.
Desjardin, a professor in ecology and evolution in the SF State Biology Department [link: http://biology.sfsu.edu] and his colleagues determined that the mushroom should be placed in the genus Neonothopanus after carefully examining the mushroom's anatomy, physiology and genetic pedigree. But capturing new specimens of the mushroom to examine was a difficult task, Desjardin said, requiring a different approach than most fungi hunting.
To catch the green glow of the bioluminescent mushroom, Desjardin and his long-time research partner in Brazil, Dr. Cassius Stevani, had to "go out on new moon nights and stumble around in the forest, running into trees," he recalled, wary of nearby poisonous snakes and prowling jaguars.
But he said advances such as digital cameras have made it easier to track down bioluminescent fungi. New cameras allow researchers to photograph mushrooms that they suspect might be bioluminescent in darkened rooms and analyze the photos for a glow (sometimes one that's not visible to the human eye) within a few minutes, compared to the 30 to 40 minutes required of regular film exposure.
Bioluminescence—simply the ability of organisms to produce light on their own—is a widespread phenomenon. Jellyfish and fireflies might be the most familiar bioluminescent creatures, but organisms from bacteria to fungi to insects and fish make their own glow through a variety of chemical processes.
Bioluminescent fungi have been well-known for centuries, from the bright orange and poisonous jack o' lantern mushrooms to the phenomenon known as "foxfire," where the nutrient-sipping threads of the honey mushroom give off a faint but eerie glow in rotten logs. Glowing fungi have captured the imagination of cultures around the world, Desjardin said. "People are mostly afraid of them, calling them 'ghost mushrooms.'"
But how does a fungus make its glow—and why would it glow in the first place? It's a question that has fascinated Desjardin for some time.
Researchers believe that the fungi make light in the same way that a firefly does, through a chemical mix of a luciferin compound and a luciferase. Luciferase is an enzyme that aids the interaction among luciferin, oxygen and water to produce a new compound that emits light.
But scientists haven't yet identified the luciferin and luciferase in fungi. "They glow 24 hours a day, as long as water and oxygen are available," Desjardin explained. "But animals only produce this light in spurts. This tells us that the chemical that is acted upon by the enzyme in mushrooms has to be readily available and abundant."
The why behind the glow also remains mostly a mystery. In mushrooms where the spore-bearing part glows, some scientists think the light may help attract insects that can help disperse the spores to grow new mushrooms.
But in the case of foxfire, it's the threadlike mycelium, which seek out nutrients for the fungi, that do the glowing. Insects attracted to the mycelium might do more harm than good to the fungi if they ate the attractively lit structures.
"We have no idea yet why this happens," Desjardin admitted. "Maybe the mycelium is glowing to attract the enemy of these insects, and will eat them before they can eat the mycelium. But we don't have any data to support this."
Desjardin has collected and analyzed bioluminescent fungi from around the world, hoping to answer some of these questions. "We want to know how this happens, how it evolved, and if it evolved multiple times. Each one of these is a fascinating question that we are close to answering."
Desjardin is the director of the H. D. Thiers Herbarium at SF State, and has taught in the Biology Department since 1990. His work focuses on fungi from underexplored tropic habitats worldwide, describing and naming new or poorly known species of fungi. He currently conducts research in West Africa, Brazil, Micronesia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Hawaiian Islands and California.
SF State is the only master's level public university serving the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin. The university enrolls more than 30,000 students each year. With nationally acclaimed programs in a range of fields -- from creative writing, cinema and biology to history, broadcast and electronic communications arts, theatre arts and ethnic studies -- the University's more than 205,140 graduates have contributed to the economic cultural and civic fabric of San Francisco and beyond.
Nan Broadbent | EurekAlert!
For a chimpanzee, one good turn deserves another
27.06.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Mathematik in den Naturwissenschaften (MPIMIS)
New method to rapidly map the 'social networks' of proteins
27.06.2017 | Salk Institute
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
27.06.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering
27.06.2017 | Information Technology
27.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy