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Medicines from Fungi: Penicillin, Lovastatin, and Cyclosporine

Updated on February 5, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton has an honors degree in biology. She is very interested in the production of medicines from chemicals in nature.

Oyster mushrooms (cream) and shiitake mushrooms (brown) contain medicinal chemicals.
Oyster mushrooms (cream) and shiitake mushrooms (brown) contain medicinal chemicals. | Source

Useful Fungi

Many people are familiar with fungi in the form of molds and mushrooms. People may not realize that fungi can be a source of medicinal chemicals, however. 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 medicines for health problems.

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 mushrooms have medicinal benefits, too. 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.

Mold growing on bread
Mold growing on bread | Source

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.

Mold growing on a clementine
Mold growing on a clementine | Source

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 petri dishes containing the bacteria in his lab. When he returned 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 had 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.

Penicillium chrysogenum (or Penicillium notatum) growing in a petri dish containing nutrient material
Penicillium chrysogenum (or Penicillium notatum) growing in a petri dish containing nutrient material | Source

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 will grow into a new mycelium.

A conidiophore bearing conidia
A conidiophore bearing conidia | Source

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.

Action of Penicillin
Action of Penicillin | Source

Aspergillus terreus

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 is 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, however, the illness is much harder to treat.

Aspergillus terreus conidiophores
Aspergillus terreus conidiophores | Source

LDL Cholesterol, HDL Cholesterol and Lovastatin

Two important forms of cholesterol are LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. The cholesterol molecules in these two substances are actually the same. In LDL cholesterol low density lipoproteins are attached to the cholesterol while in HDL cholesterol high density lipoproteins are joined to the cholesterol.

LDL cholesterol is known as the bad cholesterol, 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, cholesterol may be deposited in the lining of arteries, joining 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 is known as the good cholesterol because it removes cholesterol from the arteries and takes it to the liver to be broken down.

The best medications for solving a cholesterol problem lower LDL cholesterol and either don't affect HDL cholesterol or, like lovastatin, actually cause it to increase. (There is some debate about the consistency and size of this increase.) Lovastatin blocks a liver enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase that is needed in the production of cholesterol. This reduces the amount of cholesterol in the blood.

How to Prevent and Reduce High Cholesterol

Oyster Mushrooms

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. The mushroom is widely cultivated but also grows in the wild. It's 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 which 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.

The gills on the underside of oyster mushroom caps
The gills on the underside of oyster mushroom caps | Source

Using Medicinal Chemicals in Plants

When a medicinal chemical is found in a plant, 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 it in the laboratory and use the lab version as a medicine.

Some plants contain a sufficient concentration of a medicinal chemical to be useful when the plant is eaten as food. Oyster mushrooms may be one of these plants. Researchers have found that the mushrooms contain up to 2.8% lovastatin by dry weight. This may be sufficient to be medically supportive for a cholesterol problem that is being primarily treated by other methods. Unfortunately, we don't know the actual concentration of lovastatin in the oyster mushrooms that we buy.

Cultivated Oyster Mushroom Time lapse

Lovastatin in Oyster Mushrooms

Lovastatin has been shown to be a very 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%.

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 helpful for someone with only a minor elevation in cholesterol level, though, as long as they haven't been prescribed a medication by their doctor. If the person is taking lovastatin or another statin drug, they should ask their doctor about the advisability of eating oyster mushrooms.

People receiving a heart transplant are often given cyclosporine to reduce the chance of rejection.
People receiving a heart transplant are often given cyclosporine to reduce the chance of rejection. | Source

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. There is a drawback to the drug, however. 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. These are all autoimmune disorders, conditions in which the immune system is overactive and mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues. Dampening the response of the immune system can relieve a patient's symptoms.

Shiitake mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms | Source

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 evidence obtained so far is very interesting.

Fungi may contain new medicines.
Fungi may contain new medicines. | Source

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.

References

  • Drugs from Fungi from the University of Sydney
  • Oyster mushrooms and cholesterol in rabbits
  • Alam, N., Amin, R., Khan, A., Ara, I., Shim, M. J., Lee, M. W., … Lee, T. S. (2009). Comparative Effects of Oyster Mushrooms on Lipid Profile, Liver and Kidney Function in Hypercholesterolemic Rats. Mycobiology, 37(1), 37–42. http://doi.org/10.4489/MYCO.2009.37.1.037
  • Shiitake Mushrooms Information from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
  • Lentinan Information from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I'm sorry, hajira, I don't understand your question.

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      hajira 5 months ago

      what could be a deduction

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Peg. I appreciate your kind comment very much.

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      Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Your knowledge for the material and the way you present it in an interesting fashion is really impressive. I learned a lot from your article.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and for returning to read the hub, colorfulone. I appreciate your congratuations.

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      Susie Lehto 2 years ago from Minnesota

      Alicia, congrats on HotD. I notice this hub yesterday and bookmarked it to come back to read when I had time. Very well done, and fascinating read.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and the comment, adevwriting.

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      Arun Dev 2 years ago from United Countries of the World

      Glad to know this hub was nominated as HOTD. Keep writing good hubs!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, WiccanSage. I appreciate your kindness.

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      Mackenzie Sage Wright 2 years ago

      Ick... but very cool. Great hub, very informative, totally deserving of HOTD. Congrats.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, jtrader. I appreciate the votes.

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      jtrader 2 years ago

      Good explanation. Voted up and beautiful!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the interesting and kind comment, Heidi. I always appreciate your visits!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      My doc said that almost all meds are based on nature. Fine examples here. Another interesting hub and worthy of Hub of the Day Award. Congrats!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, poetryman. Thank you very much for the vote. I make sure that I include mushrooms in my diet, too.

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      Voted up as very useful and interesting. We try get more beneficial fungi in our diet. Much cheaper to do more of that than to take all the medicines with side effects later.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for such a kind comment, Simarpreet! I appreciate your visit very much.

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      Simarpreet Singh 2 years ago from Amritsar , INDIA

      You write so well AliciaC. It signifies your vast knowledge in your subject. Keep it up. Hope your next hub gets the editor choice :)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is great advice, Dressage Husband. Thanks for the visit.

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      Stephen J Parkin 2 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      I love mushrooms and am fascinated by their medicinal properties. However make sure you know which fungi are safe to eat too! Many are powerfully toxic.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, peachpurple. I'm interested in all fungi, even the gross ones!

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      I love mushrooms but this rotten fungi is gross and detailed hub

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, the congrats and the vote, Kristen!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Alicia, congrats on HOTD on this interesting hub of yours on medicinal fungi! Voted up!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, aesta1.

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      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Another excellent hub. I love oyster mushrooms and like the health benefits you have mentioned here.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much, Flourish! I appreciate your comment and congratulations very much.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      Congratulations on HOTD! Your hubs are always so well researched and informative, and this is no exception. Terrific job!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Rachel. It's amazing that your mum takes all of these drugs! I hope her health improves.

    • Rachael Tate profile image

      Rachael Tate 2 years ago from England

      My Mum is currently on all these drugs so I found it of particular interest.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, Writer Fox. I agree - there could be some wonderful and very useful chemicals hiding in plants!

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 3 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      Truly informative article! I can't imagine what life was like before antibiotics. There is so much more to learn about the plants on earth and their benefits for human kind. Voted up!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Deb. Thanks for the comment and for sharing the interesting but sad information about aspergillosis prevention in birds.

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      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Excellent work. I am familiar with aspergillosis infecting many pelagic birds that we had cared for at Tri-State Bird Rescue. They were given meds to keep the disease away, but it rarely worked.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Mel. Yes, some fungi can be disgusting, but I think that they're all interesting! It's great that some are useful, too.

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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Interesting summation about the benefits of fungi to humanity. You always pick these captivating topics. I learned quite a bit here, and I'll try not to look at mold with disgust again! Great hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, Jackie. Wild mushrooms could be dangerous to eat if a poisonous one is picked by mistake, but cultivated ones seem to have many health benefits (if they're cooked by a healthy method)!

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      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I cannot remember where I read it but just a few weeks ago I read some article trying to convince people not to eat mushroom but it sounds like that was foolishness. Great info and much good news. Thanks for sharing.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Faith. Thank you very much for the comment, the votes and the share! I appreciate your visit, especially on this day of celebration. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

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      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      This is very exciting news about new medicines, Alicia! I love eating mushrooms, but now this is all fascinating of course. I knew about Penicillin from long ago. I do not know how I missed this one, but glad I found it now!

      Excellent and informative hub as always.

      Up and more and sharing.

      Happy Thanksgiving,

      Faith Reaper

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Martie. It is amazing that molds can provide medicines! To be safe, I only eat cultivated molds and mushrooms that are sold in stores. It's too dangerous to collect and eat wild ones! Thank you for such a lovely comment, Martie.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 3 years ago from South Africa

      Fascinating! Alicia, I learn so much from you, and I am glad I took the time to read your profile and follow links to some of your other sites. Although I have read your profile before I have somehow missed the links.

      Who would have thought that mold growing on bread is actually medicine? If someone hasn't told us, we would never know. But I still believe we should be careful and consult a professional before we munch away on all mold and mushrooms. I still can't understand why some of the latter are deadly while others not. How do one know the difference?

      Thanks for sharing your superb knowledge, Alicia. I always come to your hubs knowing that I am going to learn something new.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and the comment, Mike!

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      Mike Robbers 3 years ago from London

      Very informative and well written hub Alicia, taught me a lot! Thank you!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, drbj. Thanks for the comment. I always appreciate your visits!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 3 years ago from south Florida

      I have always loved the taste of mushrooms, Alicia, but now have a new respect for them thanks to this informative hub, m'dear. Turns out these fungi are more than just fun guys.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the lovely comment, Dianna!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      It is so fascinating how we an abstract medicine from molds and fungi. Once again you have done a tremendous job in educating the public!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, Nell! I appreciate them all. The discovery of new antibiotics in fungi is an especially exciting idea. Other fungal antibiotics in addition to penicillin have been found, but it would be wonderful if even more were discovered!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      This was fascinating alicia, I knew of course about penicillin, but not the others. And at this time when its beginning to not work anymore anything else that they can find will be so good, great hub! voted up and shared! nell

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. I appreciate your support very much! Thank you for the comment, the share and the pin. I hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving.

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      Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great information Linda. As always a very well written, researched, and highly educational hub. I always learn so much from your hubs. Great job. Will share around and pin. Happy Turkey Day.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, EGamboa. Luckily, oyster and shiitake mushrooms are cultivated and sold in stores. I wouldn't want to collect wild mushrooms to eat. Making a mistake in identifying a mushroom and getting poisoned is a scary idea! Thanks for the visit.

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      Eileen Gamboa 3 years ago from West Palm Beach

      OK, but mushrooms still make me nervous; there was so much said about 'don't eat poison mushrooms!" when I was a kid.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Bill. Biology is fascinating! It's a great subject to study and teach.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I always find this stuff fascinating, and when I taught it I tried to get the kids to see that as well. Great information as always Alicia.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, DDE.

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      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Medications From Fungi - Penicillin, Lovastatin and Cyclosporine so interesting, informative and educational. You have created a useful and very well presented hub on this subject.