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Life-saving drugs, devastating disease and the demise of the dinosaurs: The double life of fungi

Posted October 15, 2015

Fungi, in their many forms, have helped save millions of lives by producing drugs that fight infection. However, fungi themselves are also one of the world’s biggest killers.

Cell wall structure of Fungi. Image credit: Maya and Rike, Wikimedia Commons

Cell wall structure of Fungi. Image credit: Maya and Rike, Wikimedia Commons

Professor Neil Gow and Dr Alex Brand from the University of Aberdeen’s Fungal Group will lead the discussion into the double-life of fungi – describing how they are vital in saving millions of lives globally whilst also being responsible for millions of deaths.

In an interactive and light-hearted discussion, Professor Gow and Dr Brand will show how vital fungi are in fighting disease but also how fungi feature in some surprising places in our daily lives.  Using a hands-on approach they will delve into our shopping baskets to show how everyday products such as soy sauce, bread and even cheese and onion crisps are made using fungi.

As the biggest fungal group in the UK, the team in Aberdeen are focussed on increasing our understanding of fungal infections, how fungi spread in the body and how they are ‘seen’ by our immune system.   This knowledge will aid the development of vaccines, diagnostics and new drug interventions.

Professor Neil Gow, Chair in Microbiology at The University of Aberdeen said: “We are looking forward to challenging and entertaining the audience at Café Scientifique.  Everyone uses fungal products everyday of their lives, but fungi also represent a massive threat to global food supplies and human health.”

He added:  “Most people are aware of how fungi are used to help develop antibiotics and are important in making some types of food and drink, like bread and beer.  However, what is surprising to many is that more people die of fungal infections than malaria or breast cancer. “

Dr Alex Brand added: “Fungi have a major impact on plant life too.  In the soil, they act like an extended root system, delivering nutrients and minerals to help plants grow, but the story is not always a positive one.  Airborne fungal spores attack plant leaves and stems so that one third of crops produced globally are lost to fungal diseases.  This will have to change if we want to avoid a food-shortages and malnutrition as the world’s population increases.

“Some theories even suggest that fungi led to the demise of the dinosaurs, when massive clouds of fungal spores from dead vegetation infected dinosaurs but could not survive in warmer species like birds and mammals.”

Source: The University of Aberdeen

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