The kingdom Fungi has long been an enigmatic yet integral part of the Earth’s biological community. Spanning an array of classifications, from the spectacular Polypores to the mysterious Coprinus, these organisms hold a wealth of therapeutic and nutritional potential. This article aims to explore the role of medicinal fungi as functional foods, examine the anatomy of the mycelial mat, and delve into the ancient roots of mycology. We shall navigate through the scientific techniques used in mycological classification and discuss the phenomenon of sporulation in the life cycle of fungi.
The Fungi kingdom is a realm as complex as it is mysterious. Not entirely plants nor animals, fungi have their unique classification and serve functions ranging from decomposition to symbiotic relationships (Hawksworth, 2018). While many may know fungi in the form of everyday mushrooms or yeasts, some are medicinal and even classified as “functional foods” (Wachtel-Galor et al., 2011).
Medicinal Fungi as Functional Foods
A functional food is any food claimed to have a health-promoting or disease-preventing property beyond the basic function of supplying nutrients. The term has increasingly encompassed fungi such as Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes), which are attributed with immune-boosting and anti-cancer properties (Wang et al., 2012).
Among medicinal fungi, Polypores have been a subject of intrigue. These fungi are easily recognizable by their hard, often woody, fruiting bodies bearing numerous pores or tubes on the underside. The most researched among them is Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi), known for its immunomodulatory effects (Sliva, 2003). Researchers have isolated bioactive compounds like triterpenoids and polysaccharides from this mushroom, which are believed to contribute to its medicinal efficacy (Paterson, 2006).
Coprinus spp., like Coprinus comatus (Shaggy mane), possess unique medicinal qualities. Some studies have demonstrated their ability to reduce blood glucose levels, thus hinting at their potential as anti-diabetic agents (Li et al., 2014).
In the microscopic underworld of the forest floor or within a substrate, the mycelial mat constitutes a complex network of fungal hyphae. This mat is not merely a feeding mechanism but serves as a sophisticated communication network (Gorzelak et al., 2015). Research has shown that the mycelium serves as a ‘biological internet,’ interconnecting various plant roots for nutrient sharing and communication (Simard, 2019).
The interest in fungi is not a modern development; it dates back to ancient times. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) texts such as the “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing,” a pharmacopeia written around 200-300 A.D., describe various medicinal mushrooms (Hobbs, 1995). The indigenous communities of North America and Siberia have also utilized fungi like Chaga for medicinal purposes (Lee et al., 2007).
Mycological classification has always been a tricky subject, with multiple methodologies vying for supremacy. Traditionally, fungi were classified based on morphology. However, molecular techniques like DNA barcoding have made classification more accurate (Schoch et al., 2012). Currently, integrated approaches combining morphological, ecological, and molecular data are becoming the norm (Spatafora et al., 2017).
Sporulation, the process of spore formation, is a crucial part of fungal reproduction. The spores are typically formed in specialized structures like sporangia or asci, depending on the fungal group (Alexopoulos et al., 1996). Some fungi like Coprinus disintegrate during sporulation in a process called deliquescence, fascinating scientists for its unique approach to dispersal (Moore et al., 2011).
The fungi kingdom, with its diverse range of Polypores, Coprinus, and other types, offers a veritable treasure trove of medicinal and nutritional benefits. In the growing field of functional foods, these organisms have already made a significant impact. The mystique surrounding fungi, encoded in the threads of their mycelial mats and ancient texts, remains an ever-fascinating domain that holds promises of new discoveries, efficacious medicines, and life-enhancing foods.
- Alexopoulos, C. J., Mims, C. W., & Blackwell, M. (1996). Introductory Mycology. John Wiley & Sons.
- Gorzelak, M. A., Asay, A. K., Pickles, B. J., & Simard, S. W. (2015). Inter-plant communication through mycorrhizal networks mediates complex adaptive behaviour in plant communities. AoB Plants, plv050.
- Hawksworth, D. L. (2018). The magnitude of fungal diversity: the 1.5 million species estimate revisited. Mycological Research, 105(12), 1422–1432.
- Hobbs, C. (1995). Medicinal Mushrooms. Botanica Press.
- Lee, I. K., Kim, Y. S., Jang, Y. W., Jung, J. Y., & Yun, B. S. (2007). New antioxidant polyphenols from the medicinal mushroom Inonotus obliquus. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters, 17(24), 6678–6681.
- Li, W., Zhou, W., Song, S. B., Shim, S. H., & Kim, Y. H. (2014). Anti-diabetic effect of a novel proteoglycan extracted from the fruiting bodies of fungus, Coprinus comatus. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters, 24(16), 3864–3867.
- Moore, D., Robson, G. D., & Trinci, A. P. J. (2011). 21st Century Guidebook to Fungi. Cambridge University Press.
- Paterson, R. R. M. (2006). Ganoderma–A therapeutic fungal biofactory. Phytochemistry, 67(18), 1985–2001.
- Schoch, C. L., Seifert, K. A., Huhndorf, S., Robert, V., Spouge, J. L., Levesque, C. A., … & Fungal Barcoding Consortium. (2012). Nuclear ribosomal internal transcribed spacer (ITS) region as a universal DNA barcode marker for Fungi. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(16), 6241–6246.
- Simard, S. W. (2019). Mycorrhizal networks facilitate tree communication, learning, and memory. Memory and Learning in Plants, 191-213.
- Sliva, D. (2003). Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi) in cancer treatment. Integrative Cancer Therapies, 2(4), 358–364.
- Spatafora, J. W., Chang, Y., Benny, G. L., Lazarus, K., Smith, M. E., Berbee, M. L., … & Stajich, J. E. (2016). A phylum-level phylogenetic classification of zygomycete fungi based on genome-scale data. Mycologia, 108(5), 1028–1046.
- Wachtel-Galor, S., Yuen, J., Buswell, J. A., & Benzie, I. F. F. (2011). Herbal medicine: Biomolecular and clinical aspects. CRC Press.
- Wang, X., Basnet, P., Yan, B., Li, S., & Tezuka, Y. (2012). New triterpene aldehyde, eburicoic acid, from a fruiting body of Antrodia camphorata. Planta Medica, 78(04), 373–376.
Note: The article references are hypothetical and are used for illustrative purposes.