Return of the Fungi
March 1, 2010 10:40 PM   Subscribe

Paul Stamets profile in Mother Jones... humans and fungi still have nearly half of their DNA in common and are susceptible to many of the same infections. (Referring to fungi as "our ancestors" is one of the many zingers that Stamets likes to feed audiences.) posted by hortense (16 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
humans and fungi still have nearly half of their DNA in common

Unlikely, considering that somewhere between 80% and 90% of human DNA is non-functional "junk". I'd believe that half of the remainder is common, though.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:56 PM on March 1, 2010

Interesting post, but man I hate news science.

That a homely, humble fungus could fight off virulent diseases like smallpox and TB might seem odd, until one realizes that even though the animal kingdom branched off from the fungi kingdom around 650 million years ago, humans and fungi still have nearly half of their DNA in common and are susceptible to many of the same infections.

Okay, first of all, the human genome is ~3.2 billion base pairs long. Most fungal genomes are about 50 million base pairs. Of course, anyone familiar with DNA knows that a lot of this is junk (though we learn more and more that a lot of this "junk" actually has biological function), but even still humans have 4 times as many genes as Saccharomyces cerevisiae (common yeast). I guess it's less sensational if instead of making broad inaccurate statements you say things like "Some fungi have many of the same genes as humans. Mostly the ones required for basic life functions."

Also, why would the revelation that humans and fungi share a common ancestry make it less odd that they can fight off TB or smallpox, as that sentence suggests? And relating to this ancestry: that the animal kingdom "branched off" from the fungal kingdom is just wrong! Evolution rarely works like branches on a tree. It's more like flowing water being diverted. Animals and fungus both emerged from the same set of mostly nondescript ancient eukaryotes. And to top it all off, 650 million years is way too recent for fungi; try 1,500.

I did like this though: Stamets began distancing himself from the magic mushroom crowd about nine years ago. "The problem with the psychedelic scene," he told me while driving near his vacation home on Cortes Island, the Grateful Dead playing on the stereo, "is that people contemplate their belly buttons and don't get anything done. So... shrooms are like MetaFilter?
posted by battlebison at 12:20 AM on March 2, 2010 [8 favorites]

Oh, before the DNA relation derail goes further, this (a breakdown of the similarities between our genes and the rest of life's) should help most people understand how unspecial we are in terms of DNA. To explain why this is, look at this (an approximation of what most of our genes are for. Spoiler: over half of them are just basic cellular maintenance/communication).
posted by battlebison at 12:29 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

What a fun guy!

But to be more serious, that was pretty interesting, even if it suffers from the distortions of facts common to almost all science journalism. But it does make sense that fungi are a source of antibiotics; we get beta-lactams (penicillins and cephalosporins) from mold and several classes from the soil bacteria actinomycetes (aminoglycosides, macrolides, tetracyclines, and others), so it makes sense to look at mushrooms for other antibacterial agents.
posted by TedW at 2:12 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hey, those magic mushrooms (and the Internet, where I learned about the magic mushrooms) saved me from a world of pain. 'World of pain' being cluster headaches, worst damn headache known to medical science. They won't kill you, you just wish they would.

A couple of small doses of the shrooms, just enough to get a little giggly, and the cluster attacks were stopped for months. Gave me my life back. Psilocybin isn't the only chemical that prevents clusters like this. Other tryptamines work too, including LSD, the lysergic acid amides in the seeds of certain flowering vines, and maybe even an an LSD variant that doesn't make you trip - this last is still being studied, but looks real promising. But the mushrooms are the most practical and effective.

The mainstream solution is a cocktail of various pharmaceuticals taken in high doses with a broad array of nasty side effects. Example: a week or two of prednisone followed by four times the normal dose of verapamil blood pressure medicine, combined with lithium, and backed up with sumatriptan (Imitrex at $20 - $30 a dose ) to stop the individual attacks you get anyway.

I do indeed welcome my mycological overlords.
posted by tommyD at 3:29 AM on March 2, 2010 [9 favorites]

I'm getting flashbacks to the Super Mario Brothers movie.
posted by The Whelk at 5:34 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Uh, aren't we the ones who are old and busted and the fungi the new hotness?

A better way to compare to species is to look at the genes they have in common, but even that breaks down at some point. If you look at number of generations, two E. coli cultures that were split in early December are more distantly related that I am likely to be from any other random human. I have more DNA in common with a rubber eel than E. coli K12 (the most popular lab strain) and O157 H7 (the one that keeps showing up in the news) do with one another.

Can anyone find the research that the U of I people did? While I'm all over the idea of using biological compounds to treat disease, the hits I'm getting on Google for the search string (Tuberculosis "Fomitopsis officinalis" "University of Illinois") make me think it be foolish to put off getting that persistent cough you have looked at.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:03 AM on March 2, 2010

Man, those wacky bio-anthropologists are a lot of fun. Wacky, but fun.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:03 AM on March 2, 2010

humans and fungi still have nearly half of their DNA in common

I thought this was true of humans and basically any living thing - I had heard the example used with a fruit before... What I got from it was that the fundamental ability to be able to grow and self-replicate (to be alive) is more (or as) complicated than all the individuating traits that determine your species.
posted by mdn at 6:09 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cool stuff. Here's another post I put together a few weeks ago about industrial strength fungus, the idea of "mycorestoration," and Paul Stamets. And here are some older posts about Stamets specifically.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 6:17 AM on March 2, 2010

Oh crap. I didn't realize you had posted the old links below the fold (I didn't see the usual [previously] marker) - never you mind my extra links! Go Team Stamets!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 6:19 AM on March 2, 2010

I ate magic mushrooms once before seeing Casino. It's a light show equal to the climax of 2001.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:09 AM on March 2, 2010

The other day I was at the grocery store and the checker was a portabello mushroom.
And no, she wasn't new...and to make matters worse, the checker next to her didn't know.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:21 AM on March 2, 2010

When a fungus gives birth to a human baby, I will give you $100,000.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:46 AM on March 2, 2010

Meet the new moss...same as the old moss.
posted by hell toupee at 5:36 AM on March 3, 2010

Stamets is a lot of fun to watch present in person. The article makes him seem boring!
posted by dale_a at 10:29 AM on March 5, 2010

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