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Carnivorous oyster mushrooms can kill roundworms with “nerve gas in a lollipop”

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Enlarge / Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) serenely growing on a tree trunk in a forest. But nematodes beware! These oyster mushrooms want to eat you—and they have evolved a novel mechanism for paralyzing and killing you.
Arterra/Getty Images

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are a staple of many kinds of cuisine, prized for its mild flavors and a scent vaguely hinting at anise. These cream-colored mushrooms are also one of several types of carnivorous fungi that prey on nematodes (roundworms) in particular. The mushrooms have evolved a novel mechanism for paralyzing and killing its nematode prey: a toxin contained within lollipop-like structures called toxocysts that, when emitted, causes widespread cell death in roundworms within minutes. Scientists have now identified the specific volatile organic compound responsible for this effect, according to a new paper published in the journal Science Advances.

Carnivorous fungi like the oyster mushroom feed on nematodes because these little creatures are plentiful in soil and provide a handy protein source. Different species have evolved various mechanisms for hunting and consuming their prey. For instance, oomycetes are fungus-like organisms that send out “hunter cells” to search for nematodes. Once they find them, they form cysts near the mouth or anus of the roundworms and then inject themselves into the worms to attack the internal organs. Another group of oomycetes uses cells that behave like prey-seeking harpoons, injecting the fungal spores into the worm to seal its fate.

Other fungi produce spores with irritating shapes like stickles or stilettos. The nematodes swallow the spores, which get caught in the esophagus and germinate by puncturing the worm’s gut. There are sticky branch-like structures that act like superglue; death collars that detach when nematodes swim through them, injecting themselves into the worms; and a dozen or so fungal species employ snares that constrict in under a second, squeezing the nematodes to death.

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<a href=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/oyster1.jpg” class=”enlarge” data-height=”803″ data-width=”1200″ alt=”Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image of toxocysts on P. ostreatus hyphae.”><img alt=”Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image of toxocysts on P. ostreatus hyphae.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/oyster1-640×428.jpg” width=”640″ height=”428″ srcset=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/oyster1.jpg 2x”>
Enlarge / Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image of toxocysts on P. ostreatus hyphae.
Yi-Yun Lee

The oyster mushroom eschews these physical traps in favor of a chemical mechanism. P. ostreatus is what’s known as a “wood rotter” that targets dead trees, but wood is relatively poor in protein. Its long branching filaments (called hyphae) are the part of the ‘shroom that grows into the rotting wood. Those hyphae are home to the toxocysts. When nematodes encounter the toxocysts, they burst, and the nematodes typically become paralyzed and die within minutes. Once the prey is dead, the hyphae grow into the nematode bodies, dissolving the contents and absorbing the slurry for the nutrients.

In 2020, a team of scientists at Academia Sinica in Taiwan tested all 15 species of P. ostreatus and found that all 15 could produce toxic drops when starved. They also tested 17 species of nematode and found that none could survive exposure to the toxin. Co-author Ching-Han Lee and colleagues suggested that the culprit might be the calcium stored in animal muscles, which, when released in response to nerve signals, causes the muscles to contract. The muscles relax when nerve signals trigger the refilling of the calcium storehouses.

To test the hypothesis, the team conducted experiments where the calcium in the worms was visible, and then tracked the response to exposure to the oyster mushroom toxocysts. They found that the pharynx and head muscles of poisoned nematodes were flooded with calcium and said calcium did not go away, leading to widespread nerve and muscle cell death. They suggested that the toxin triggers the initial calcium response, but then jams the mechanism by which the nematodes refurbish their calcium supply.

A mitochondrial calcium wave propagating throughout the hypodermis tissue after contacting P. ostreatus.Credit: Ching-Han Lee

But Lee et al. could not identify the specific toxins responsible for the effect, though they did note that the oyster mushroom’s chemical mechanism was distinct from the nematicides currently used to control nematode populations. For the new study, Lee and co-authors used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to do just that. The first version of the experiment tested a vial sample containing just the culture medium and glass beads. A second version tested a vial sample containing P. ostreatus that had been cultured for two to three weeks. The third version was a combination of the first two, testing a vial sample that contained both cultured P. ostreatus and glass beads.

The culprit: a volatile ketone called 3-octanone, one of several naturally occurring volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that fungi use for communication. It seems 3-octanone also serves as a potent nematode-killing mechanism. Exposing four species of nematode to 3-octanone triggered the telltale massive (and fatal) influx of calcium ions into nerve and muscle cells. The dosage is critical, per the authors. Low dosages are a repellant to slugs and snails, but high dosages are fatal. The same is true for nematodes. A high concentration of more than 50 percent of 3-octanone is required to trigger the rapid paralysis and widespread cell death. The team also induced thousands of random genetic mutations in the fungus. Those mutants that didn’t develop toxocysts on their hyphae were no longer toxic to the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans.

As for why oyster mushrooms evolved such an unusual mechanism for killing nematodes, the authors suggest that it’s because dying or rotting trees are particularly poor in nitrogen, and this mechanism is a good way for the mushrooms to make up for that deficiency. The toxocysts might even serve a defensive purpose. Specific species of nematode can pierce the fungal hyphae to suck out the cytoplasm, so having toxocysts that emit poison gas on the hyphae could protect the fungus from such predators.

DOI: Science Advances, 2023. 10.1126/sciadv.ade4809  (About DOIs).

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Rare ‘big fuzzy green ball’ comet visible in B.C. skies, a 50000-year sight

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In the night sky, a comet is flying by Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.

Steve Coleopy, of the South Cariboo Astronomy Club, is offering some tips on how to see it before it disappears.

The green-coloured comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF), is not readily visible to the naked eye, although someone with good eyesight in really dark skies might be able to see it, he said. The only problem is it’s getting less visible by the day.

“Right now the comet is the closest to earth and is travelling rapidly away,” Coleopy said, noting it is easily seen through binoculars and small telescopes. “I have not been very successful in taking a picture of it yet, because it’s so faint, but will keep trying, weather permitting.”

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At the moment, the comet is located between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star but will be moving toward the Planet Mars – a steady orange-coloured point of light- in the night sky over the next couple of weeks, according to Coleopy.

“I have found it best to view the comet after 3:30 in the morning, after the moon sets,” he said. “It is still visible in binoculars even with the moon still up, but the view is more washed out because of the moonlight.”

He noted the comet looks like a “big fuzzy green ball,” as opposed to the bright pinpoint light of the stars.

“There’s not much of a tail, but if you can look through the binoculars for a short period of time, enough for your eyes to acclimatize to the image, it’s quite spectacular.”

To know its more precise location on a particular evening, an internet search will produce drawings and pictures of the comet with dates of where and when the comet will be in each daily location.

Coleopy notes the comet will only be visible for a few more weeks, and then it won’t return for about 50,000 years.


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Extreme species deficit of nitrogen-converting microbes in European lakes

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Sampling of Lake Constance water from 85 m depth, in which ammonia-oxidizing archaea make up as much as 40% of all microorganisms

Dr. David Kamanda Ngugi, environmental microbiologist at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ

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Leibniz Institute DSMZ

 

An international team of researchers led by microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH in Braunschweig, Germany, shows that in the depths of European lakes, the detoxification of ammonium is ensured by an extremely low biodiversity of archaea. The researchers recently published their findings in the prestigious international journal Science Advances. The team led by environmental microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ has now shown that the species diversity of these archaea in lakes around the world ranges from 1 to 15 species. This is of particularly concern in the context of global biodiversity loss and the UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022. Lakes play an important role in providing freshwater for drinking, inland fisheries, and recreation. These ecosystem services would be at danger from ammonium enrichment. Ammonium is an essential component of agricultural fertilizers and contributes to its remarkable increase in environmental concentrations and the overall im-balance of the global nitrogen cycle. Nutrient-poor lakes with large water masses (such as Lake Constance and many other pre-alpine lakes) harbor enormously large populations of archaea, a unique class of microorganisms. In sediments and other low-oxygen environments, these archaea convert ammonium to nitrate, which is then converted to inert dinitrogen gas, an essential component of the air. In this way, they contribute to the detoxification of ammonium in the aquatic environment. In fact, the species predominant in European lakes is even clonal and shows low genetic microdiversity between different lakes. This low species diversity contrasts with marine ecosystems where this group of microorganisms predominates with much greater species richness, making the stability of ecosystem function provided by these nitrogen-converting archaea potentially vulnerable to environmental change.

Maintenance of drinking water quality
Although there is a lot of water on our planet, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Since much of this fresh water is stored in glaciers and polar ice caps, only about 80% of it is even accessible to us humans. About 36% of drinking water in the European Union is obtained from surface waters. It is therefore crucial to understand how environmental processes such as microbial nitrification maintain this ecosystem service. The rate-determining phase of nitrification is the oxidation of ammonia, which prevents the accumulation of ammonium and converts it to nitrate via nitrite. In this way, ammonium is prevented from contaminating water sources and is necessary for its final conversion to the harmless dinitrogen gas. In this study, deep lakes on five different continents were investigated to assess the richness and evolutionary history of ammonia-oxidizing archaea. Organisms from marine habitats have traditionally colonized freshwater ecosystems. However, these archaea have had to make significant changes in their cell composition, possible only a few times during evolution, when they moved from marine habitats to freshwaters with much lower salt concentrations. The researchers identified this selection pressure as the major barrier to greater diversity of ammonia-oxidizing archaea colonizing freshwaters. The researchers were also able to determine when the few freshwater archaea first appeared. Ac-cording to the study, the dominant archaeal species in European lakes emerged only about 13 million years ago, which is quite consistent with the evolutionary history of the European lakes studied.

Slowed evolution of freshwater archaea
The major freshwater species in Europe changed relatively little over the 13 million years and spread almost clonally across Europe and Asia, which puzzled the researchers. Currently, there are not many examples of such an evolutionary break over such long time periods and over large intercontinental ranges. The authors suggest that the main factor slowing the rapid growth rates and associated evolutionary changes is the low temperatures (4 °C) at the bottom of the lakes studied. As a result, these archaea are restricted to a state of low genetic diversity. It is unclear how the extremely species-poor and evolutionarily static freshwater archaea will respond to changes induced by global climate warming and eutrophication of nearby agricultur-al lands, as the effects of climate change are more pronounced in freshwater than in marine habitats, which is associated with a loss of biodiversity.

Publication: Ngugi DK, Salcher MM, Andre A-S, Ghai R., Klotz F, Chiriac M-C, Ionescu D, Büsing P, Grossart H-S, Xing P, Priscu JC, Alymkulov S, Pester M. 2022. Postglacial adaptations enabled coloniza-tion and quasi-clonal dispersal of ammonia oxidizing archaea in modern European large lakes. Science Advances: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.adc9392

Press contact:
PhDr. Sven-David Müller, Head of Public Relations, Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH
Phone: ++49 (0)531/2616-300
Mail: press@dsmz.de

About the Leibniz Institute DSMZ
The Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures is the world’s most diverse collection of biological resources (bacteria, archaea, protists, yeasts, fungi, bacteriophages, plant viruses, genomic bacterial DNA as well as human and animal cell lines). Microorganisms and cell cultures are collected, investigated and archived at the DSMZ. As an institution of the Leibniz Association, the DSMZ with its extensive scientific services and biological resources has been a global partner for research, science and industry since 1969. The DSMZ was the first registered collection in Europe (Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014) and is certified according to the quality standard ISO 9001:2015. As a patent depository, it offers the only possibility in Germany to deposit biological material in accordance with the requirements of the Budapest Treaty. In addition to scientific services, research is the second pillar of the DSMZ. The institute, located on the Science Campus Braunschweig-Süd, accommodates more than 82,000 cultures and biomaterials and has around 200 employees. www.dsmz.de

PhDr. Sven David Mueller, M.Sc.
Leibniz-Institut DSMZ
+49 531 2616300
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Scientists are closing in on why the universe exists

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Particle astrophysicist Benjamin Tam hopes his work will help us understand a question. A very big one.

“The big question that we are trying to answer with this research is how the universe was formed,” said Tam, who is finishing his PhD at Queen’s University.

“What is the origin of the universe?”

And to answer that question, he and dozens of fellow scientists and engineers are conducting a multi-million dollar experiment two kilometres below the surface of the Canadian Shield in a repurposed mine near Sudbury, Ontario.

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Ten thousand light-sensitive cameras send data to scientists watching for evidence of a neutrino bumping into another particle. (Tom Howell/CBC)

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) is already famous for an earlier experiment that revealed how neutrinos ‘oscillate’ between different versions of themselves as they travel here from the sun.

This finding proved a vital point: the mass of a neutrino cannot be zero. The experiment’s lead scientist, Arthur McDonald, shared the Nobel Prize in 2015 for this discovery.

The neutrino is commonly known as the ‘ghost particle.’ Trillions upon trillions of them emanate from the sun every second. To humans, they are imperceptible except through highly specialized detection technology that alerts us to their presence.

Neutrinos were first hypothesized in the early 20th century to explain why certain important physics equations consistently produced what looked like the wrong answers. In 1956, they were proven to exist.

A digital image of a sphere that is blue and transparent with lines all over.
The neutrino detector is at the heart of the SNO+ experiment. An acrylic sphere containing ‘scintillator’ liquid is suspended inside a larger water-filled globe studded with 10,000 light-sensitive cameras. (Submitted by SNOLOAB)

Tam and his fellow researchers are now homing in on the biggest remaining mystery about these tiny particles.

Nobody knows what happens when two neutrinos collide. If it can be shown that they sometimes zap each other out of existence, scientists could conclude that a neutrino acts as its own ‘antiparticle’.

Such a conclusion would explain how an imbalance arose between matter and anti-matter, thus clarifying the current existence of all the matter in the universe.

It would also offer some relief to those hoping to describe the physical world using a model that does not imply none of us should be here.

A screengrab of two scientists wearing white hard hat helmets, clear googles and blue safety suits standing on either side of CBC producer holding a microphone. All three people are laughing.
IDEAS producer Tom Howell (centre) joins research scientist Erica Caden (left) and Benjamin Tam on a video call from their underground lab. (Screengrab: Nicola Luksic)

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):

Benjamin Tam is a PhD student in Particle Astrophysics at Queen’s University.

Eve Vavagiakis is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow in the Physics Department at Cornell University. She’s the author of a children’s book, I’m A Neutrino: Tiny Particles in a Big Universe.

Blaire Flynn is the senior education and outreach officer at SNOLAB.

Erica Caden is a research scientist at SNOLAB. Among her duties she is the detector manager for SNO+, responsible for keeping things running day to day.


*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. It is part of an on-going series, IDEAS from the Trenches, some stories are below.

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