Penicillin, Lovastatin, and Cyclosporine: Medicines From Fungi
Many people are familiar with fungi in the form of molds and mushrooms. People may not realize that fungi can sometimes be a source of medicinal chemicals. The fuzzy growth on a forgotten sandwich, the mold on a decaying piece of fruit, cultivated mushrooms bought in a grocery store, and mushrooms harvested from the wild may all contain useful chemicals for dealing with health problems. Some fungi may be dangerous to eat even though they contain a beneficial substance, so caution is necessary. In addition, potentially helpful chemicals may need to be extracted from fungi and then properly prepared in order to be effective.
Penicillin is probably the best known medication made by a mold, but there are many other examples. Penicillin is an antibiotic and kills bacteria. Another medication made by a mold is lovastatin, which is used to lower LDL cholesterol (the so-called bad cholesterol). Cyclosporine is a mold chemical that suppresses the activity of the immune system and is administered after an organ transplant to help prevent rejection of the organ. It's also used to treat some autoimmune diseases.
Some edible mushrooms may have medicinal benefits. Oyster mushrooms contain lovastatin, for example, and shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan and eritadenine. Lentinan is an interesting substance that may boost the activity of the immune system and make medications used to treat some types of cancer more effective. Eritadenine lowers blood cholesterol in animals and may do the same in humans.
Eating a fungus containing a medicinal chemical may not help a health problem. The chemical may need to be extracted, purified, concentrated, and medically formulated in order to be useful. Some fungi containing potentially helpful chemicals are dangerous to eat in an intact form. A doctor should be consulted if someone wants to use medicines obtained from fungi.
What Is a Mold?
The word "mold" (or mould) is very commonly used but is actually a non-scientific term. It generally refers to fungi with a fuzzy, hairy, or powdery appearance that grow where they're not wanted and don't produce mushrooms.
Many medicinal chemicals obtained from fungi are produced by molds. Like other fungi (except for yeasts), the body of a mold consists of branching, thread-like structures called hyphae. The hyphae of a fungus collectively form a structure known as a mycelium. The mycelium may be partially or completely hidden in the substrate of the fungus.
Molds produce small reproductive structures that bear spores. The spores produce a powdery appearance on top of the hyphae and may sometimes be colored. Unlike some other fungi, molds don't produce mushrooms, which are larger, more noticeable, and more complex reproductive structures.
Molds and other fungi can't make their own food and must obtain it from their environment. They secrete digestive enzymes into their food source and then absorb the products of the digestion.
The Discovery of Penicillin
Penicillin was the first antibiotic to be identified. It was discovered by a Scottish biologist named Alexander Fleming. The discovery began a wonderful period in which previously deadly infections could be cured. Today many antibiotics are not as effective as they once were due to the growing problem of bacterial resistance.
In 1928, Fleming was studying bacteria known as staphylococci. He went on vacation, leaving some Petri dishes containing the bacteria in his lab. The term "Petri" dish is capitalized because it's named after a German bacteriologist called Julius Richard Petri.
When Fleming returned from his vacation, he saw that many of the dishes had been contaminated with airborne fungal spores and now had fungi growing in them. Fleming noticed that there was a clear zone around the fungus in one dish. He suspected that the fungus had made a substance that killed the bacteria. Eventually, with the aid of other scientists, he was able to isolate penicillin from the dish and show that it could indeed kill bacteria.
Alexander Fleming's Discovery of Penicillin
The Penicillium Fungus
Several species of Penicillium make penicillin. There is some controversy about the identity of the fungus in Fleming's petri dishes. It may have been Penicillium chrysogenum, also known as Penicillium notatum, which is a common indoor mold.
The hyphae of Penicillium bear reproductive structures called conidiophores. The top of each conidiophore is branched, making it look like a broom. Each branch bears a chain of spores known as conidia. The conidia of Penicillium chrysogenum are blue to blue-green in color. They are shed into the air and are transported by air currents to new areas. If they land on a suitable food source (such as the nutrient material in Fleming's Petri dish), they form a new mycelium.
How Does Penicillin Work?
Penicillin kills bacteria by preventing them from making a cell wall, which is the outer covering of a bacterium. It does this by preventing cross links from forming between the peptidoglycan molecules in the wall.
As a bacterial cell grows, it makes new cell wall to accommodate its increased size. In the presence of penicillin, a gap forms in the wall as the cell enlarges, since no new wall material can be made. The cell contents leak out of their container and the cell dies.
Lovastatin is made by a mold called Aspergillus terreus. The fungus can be found around the world, but it usually inhabits tropical areas. It's a decomposer that normally lives in soil. It can also appear in other habitats, such as stored grains, dried fruit and spices, air conditioners, and dust. Like Penicillium, it produces conidiophores that bear conidia.
Aspergillus terreus is a useful mold. It provides us with both lovastatin and organic acids. Like some other fungi, however, Aspergillus terreus can hurt us as well as help us. The fungus can cause disease in humans. It's capable of producing a skin infection and a potentially serious illness called aspergillosis. If the fungus progresses no further into the body than the lungs, the infection can generally be treated successfully. If the fungus penetrates deeper into the body, the illness is much harder to treat.
LDL and HDL Cholesterol
LDL and HDL cholesterol are important substances in the body. The cholesterol molecules in the substances are identical, but the lipoproteins surrounding them are different. In the LDL version of the substance, low density lipoproteins are attached to the cholesterol. In the HDL version, high density lipoproteins surround the molecule.
LDL cholesterol is known as the "bad" version, even though it plays an essential role in the body. It travels away from the liver, where it's made, in order to provide cells with the essential cholesterol molecules that they need for their cell membrane.
If too much LDL cholesterol is present in the blood, the cargo bound to the lipoproteins may be deposited in the lining of arteries instead of being delivered to cells. Here the cholesterol may join with other substances to form a material called plaque. The plaque increases the risk of a heart attack, a stroke, and peripheral artery disease. HDL cholesterol (the so-called "good" kind) transports cholesterol from the arteries to the liver to be broken down.
Lovastatin was discovered in 1978 when chemicals from Aspergillus terreus were screened. It's also known as mevinolin. It blocks a liver enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase that is needed in the production of cholesterol. This reduces the amount of the chemical in the blood.
Some evidence suggests that though lovastatin lowers the overall cholesterol level and the level of LDL cholesterol, it may increase the level of HDL cholesterol to a small extent. The reason for this observation is still being explored.
The oyster mushroom is another fungus that makes lovastatin. The scientific name of the mushroom is Pleurotus ostreatus. It's a popular food item and is available in many supermarkets. It's widely cultivated but also grows in the wild. The mushroom is usually white to light brown in color. Its stalk is often strongly curved to one side.
In the wild, oyster mushrooms grow on tree trunks, branches, or fallen logs. They decompose the wood in these items as they grow, absorbing its nutrients. Although they depend mainly on decaying wood for food, oyster mushrooms are also carnivorous. The mycelium secretes drops of poison that kill worm-like creatures called nematodes (or roundworms) that are present in wood. The fungus releases digestive enzymes into the worms and then absorbs the products of the digestion. It's thought that the nematodes provide the fungus with the nitrogen that the wood lacks.
Medicinal Chemicals in Fungi
When a medicinal chemical is found in a fungus, the chemical is often extracted, purified, and concentrated before it's used as a medication. In some cases, once the natural chemical and its production are studied, scientists are able to create the substance in the laboratory and even improve its properties. The lab version of the chemical is then used as a medicine.
Some organisms may contain a sufficient concentration of a medicinal chemical to be useful when they are eaten as food. Oyster mushrooms might be one example. Researchers have found that the mushrooms contain up to 2.8% lovastatin by dry weight. This may be sufficient to help a cholesterol problem that is being primarily treated by other methods. Unfortunately, we don't know the actual concentration of lovastatin in the particular oyster mushrooms that we buy.
Oyster Mushroom Time Lapse Video
Lovastatin in Oyster Mushrooms
Lovastatin has been shown to be an effective medication for lowering a high blood cholesterol level (hypercholesterolemia). However, people with hypercholesterolemia generally take prescribed lovastatin tablets instead of relying on the lower concentration of the medication found in oyster mushrooms.
Animal experiments have shown that eating powdered oyster mushrooms does lower cholesterol, but the mushrooms are given to the animals in larger doses than people would normally eat. For example, one experiment showed that when oyster mushroom powder formed 10% of the diet in rabbits, their blood cholesterol level was reduced by 65%. Similarly, when oyster mushrooms formed 5% of the diet in rats, their blood cholesterol level was reduced by 37%. The results may not be the same in humans.
Making oyster mushrooms such a large component of a human diet may not be appropriate. Adding a moderate intake of the mushrooms to a healthy diet might be useful. If the person has been diagnosed with high cholesterol or is taking lovastatin or another statin drug, however, they should ask their doctor about the advisability of eating oyster mushrooms.
Cyclosporine or Ciclosporin
Cyclosporine was discovered in 1969. It's produced by a soil mold called Tolypocladium inflatum. In 1996, it was discovered that this mold is actually a stage in the life of a fungus known as Cordyceps subsessilis, which is a parasite of beetles. The soil stage of the fungus is much more common than the parasitic stage.
Cyclosporine is an immunosuppressant. It decreases the activity of the immune system, reducing the probability that it will attack and destroy an organ or tissue coming from another person. The immune system normally protects us from cells and particles that don't belong in our body. By preventing the immune system from doing its job in the case of a transplant, cyclosporine is a potential life-saver. Unfortunately, the drug has a drawback. While taking the medication, a patient may be more susceptible to infections because their immune system is hampered.
Cyclosporine is also prescribed for some cases of psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis, especially when these conditions haven't responded to other treatments. The conditions are all believed to be autoimmune disorders, or at least to have an autoimmune component. Autoimmune disorders are ones in which the immune system is overactive and mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues. Dampening the response of the immune system may relieve a patient's symptoms.
Shiitake Mushrooms, Lentinan, and Eritadenine
Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) are edible mushrooms that are native to East Asia and are cultivated in many countries. Two chemicals of interest in shiitake mushrooms are lentinan and eritadenine. Lentinan may boost the immune system, thereby helping to fight cancer and to destroy viruses. Lentinan's active ingredient seems to be a substance called 1,3 beta glucan. Beta glucans in other fungi and in some plants are also thought to have medicinal benefits for humans. Eritadenine may lower cholesterol in humans, as it does in animals.
According to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center:
- A few clinical trials show that when combined with chemotherapy lentinan increases the survival time of people with certain types of cancer.
- Lab studies and a few human studies show that lentinan boosts the activity of specific cells within the immune system.
- In the lab, lentinan has destroyed viruses and bacteria. Whether it can do this in the human body is unknown.
More investigations are needed to clarify the medicinal effects of shiitake mushrooms and their components. The discoveries made so far are very interesting.
Anyone with a health problem who wants to add a possibly helpful mushroom to their diet should seek their doctor's advice. Mushrooms should be regarded as potential aids for a disorder and not as a primary treatment for the condition.
Discovering New Medicines in Fungi
Many fungal chemicals have improved health problems in lab animals. Some of these chemicals have proved to be effective in us, too. Clinical tests are needed to confirm that others work in humans. Discovering an appropriate dose for a chemical is also essential. As with any medication, a dose that is too low would likely be ineffective, while a dose that is too high could cause dangerous side effects.
The potential for obtaining new medicines from fungi is very exciting. The discovery of a new organism in nature is always interesting, but in the case of fungi it could also be important. There may be effective treatments for serious diseases inside the mycelia and mushrooms of fungi.
- Discovery and development of penicillin from the American Chemical Society
- Lovastatin production by Aspergillus terreus from the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology
- Cholesterol information from the American Heart Association
- Facts about the carnivorous oyster mushroom from Clark University
- Oyster mushrooms and cholesterol in rabbits
- Comparative Effects of Oyster Mushrooms on Lipid Profile, Liver and Kidney Function in Hypercholesterolemic Rats from the Mycobiology journal
- Facts about cyclosporine from the U.S. National Library of Medicine
- Shiitake mushrooms information from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
- Lentinan information from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
- Eritadenine effects in rats from ScienceDirect
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Do Ganoderma mushrooms have important medicinal properties, and if so, how do they work?
The Ganoderma mushroom is also known as Ganoderma lucidum, the Reishi mushroom, and lingzhi. Preliminary evidence suggests that it may have some health benefits, but it also has potential dangers. It contains chemicals that may help the immune system to function better, but further research is needed to confirm this benefit.
It’s imperative that anyone thinking of using the mushroom medicinally reads the WebMD article in the link given below. The article summarizes our current knowledge about the mushroom’s potential uses and dangers and its interactions with specific medications. In addition to reading the WebMD article, a person should seek their doctor’s advice about eating the mushroom or an extract. Some of the dangers could be very serious for certain people.Helpful 5
How are fungi used to make drugs that help people?
A wide variety of methods make the chemicals in fungi that humans use as medicinal drugs. The fungi use the substances in their daily life. Fortunately, they can be used as a disease treatment in humans as well.
Cyclosporine is one medicinal chemical in fungi. It's a peptide made by joining amino acids together. The form of lovastatin that's used as a medicine is a lactone and is produced by a different method. Penicillin has a different structure from either lovastatin or cyclosporine, and is made by yet another method.Helpful 8
© 2013 Linda Crampton