Fungi: The Hidden Threat to Human Health and Food Safety

Discover the captivating world of fungi and their potential impact on human health and food safety. While some fungi are harmless and even beneficial, others can exploit weakened immune systems to cause disease. Learn about the latest research and interesting facts about these mysterious organisms.

Fungi: The Hidden Threat to Human Health and Food Safety
Mushrooms are just one type of fascinating fungi found in nature. Image by DALL·E

Microorganisms like viruses and bacteria have been called the biggest threat to the survival of humans. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that, as a species, we were not prepared to face a challenge of this magnitude. But what about fungi?

If you are a fan of science fiction series, you have probably already heard about the show "The Last of Us", which is trending worldwide and tells the story of a post-apocalyptic scenario in which a fungus mutated, infecting people and turning them into a type of zombie.

Aldo Gutiérrez Saldaña, academic at the Center for Research in Food and Development (CIAD) and expert in mycology (the branch of science that studies fungi), explained that, although the plot of the program deals with a strain that does not exist, in nature there is a type of fungus that infects ants and other arthropods, controlling their bodies, with the sole purpose of ensuring their survival to continue disseminating its spores and, therefore, the reproduction of the fungus.

In the first case, we looked at the Cordyceps fungus, which is now called Ophiocordyceps. There are more than 200 species of this fungus that can grow on insects and spiders, but not all of them harm each other. Sometimes they help each other out.

Regarding the possibility that a fungus could undergo a mutation that represents a threat to human health, Gutiérrez Saldaña indicated that the scenario presented in the series is quite fanciful due to the type of growth and development that this type of fungi have, and even when mutations occur, they are more to adapt to the environment than anything else.

In the story, which is based on a video game, it is stated that, unlike viruses and bacteria, against fungi, it is not possible to develop a vaccine or medicine, respectively. About this, the expert from the Coordination of Plant Food Technology of CIAD pointed out that in recent times the interest in developing vaccines or medicines for these organisms has increased as knowledge about fungi advances and the incidence they have to cause diseases that were previously attributed to other types of microorganisms is seen.

He did say, though, that more work is being done on microscopic opportunistic fungi like Candida and Aspergillus (which are also mentioned in the series) than on large fungi like Cordyceps. In traditional Chinese medicine, some caterpillars infected with Cordyceps are used as medicine to boost the immune system or treat cancer, which is a strange thing to learn.

Mushrooms are a wonderful species in the natural kingdom, as they are neither plants nor animals, and contrary to what one might think, they are closer to the latter. Fungi belong to the fungi kingdom and have their characteristics, such as the type of cells, their structural components, and the way they feed. We live with them every day; they are part of us, and although there are millions of species of fungi, only a few can make people sick.

While it is true that there are toxic, hallucinogenic, and other fungi that affect crops, there are also those that represent a source of food for people, such as mushrooms, so their research is of utmost importance to ensure food safety.

Currently, the fungi that have the greatest impact on people's health are those that prey on our immune system's weakness as a result of illness, treatment, or medication, or when there is an environment favorable to their growth. So, it is best to have healthy habits like eating well, staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough sleep, not smoking, and not drinking too much alcohol. We shouldn't be afraid of them, but we should treat them with respect. If you don't know much about fungi or aren't sure what to do, it's best to talk to an expert, who will be happy to show you the wonderful world of fungi.