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Novel fungus can help clean-up harmful toxins

Research looking into the use of either naturally occurring microorganisms, designed to consume and break down environmental pollutants.

Saudi Aramco is billed as the largest oil producing company in the world
Saudi Aramco is billed as the largest oil producing company in the world - Copyright AFP Yasuyoshi CHIBA
Saudi Aramco is billed as the largest oil producing company in the world - Copyright AFP Yasuyoshi CHIBA

A research team have discovered that a fungus that is common in polluted water produces environmentally important minerals as it reproduces. By utilizing this, scientists can develop a mineral that can be used to clean-up toxic residues.

This discovery forms part of the process of bioremediation. Bioremediation research concentrates on organic pollutants, although the range of substances that can be transformed or detoxified by microorganisms. Many fungi also play a key role in metals biomineralization and biogeochemical cycling.

This process influences various essential paedogenic processes, such as rock weathering, organic matter turnover, and element distribution. There may also be another application for the types of fungi involved, in terms of addressing human-made pollution.

The research team, based at Harvard University, have identified that a fungus called Stilbella aciculosa can do something quite remarkable, according to the university’s research brief. The fungus, a member of the Ascomycete family, produces spores on stalks during reproduction (the spores develop within asci, which resemble cylindrical sacs). It is during this spore development process that a chemical is produced called a superoxide (a compound that contains the superoxide ion).

For the fungus, the superoxide helps its cells to divide (specifically, a by-product of fungal growth when the organism produces spores). What the scientists have shown is that when the superoxide by-product is released into the environment it reacts with the element manganese. This reaction produces a highly reactive mineral.

The mineral produced can be used to clean-up of toxic metals, according to PhysOrg. The scientists believe that this mineral can be used for the cleaning of mines and other industrial processes where toxic contaminants, such as arsenic, cadmium, and cobalt, are a problem. These types of toxins, if they enter the water system, can prove to be particularly hazardous.

The research findings were published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in July. The research team was led by Colleen Hansel, a faculty associate professor of environmental microbiology at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). The paper’s reference is:

Mn(II) oxidation by an ascomycete fungus is linked to superoxide production during asexual reproduction. Published in the journal PNAS.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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