Fungi, food, and biotechnology.

Fungi are remarkable organisms – ubiquitous in all terrestrial environments, yet often unnoticed.  When most people think of fungi, colorful mushrooms come to mind, but mushrooms are only a fraction of the species diversity in the fungal kingdom.  Hidden yeasts, molds, and endophytic fungi all play essential roles in many ecosystems.   For instance, the decomposition of wood and leaf litter is largely performed by microscopic filamentous fungi.  Most plants harbor endophytic and mycorrhizal fungi that can enhance nutrient uptake and plant health.  Fungi are also a big part of human society and the biotechnology industry.

One of the most common uses of fungi by humans is in the production of food and beverages.  The beer, wine, and spirits industry all use the microscopic yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, for the production of alcohol.  Wine has been produced by humans for several thousand years; however it was not until the 19th century when French scientist Louis Pasteur conclusively linked the production of alcohol to the Yeast.   Yeast is also used around the world as a leavening agent in the production of bread.  Molds, or filamentous fungi, are also heavily used in food production.  Foods like soy sauce, blue cheese, and tempeh are produced using filamentous fungi – in the cases of blue cheese and tempeh you actually eat the mold!  Finally, the most widely recognizable form of fungi, the mushroom, is itself a fine delicacy and available for purchase in all grocery stores and pizza parlors.

Outside of the food industry, fungi are also a central component of the modern pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.  Human health was dramatically improved as a result of the discovery that fungi produce antibiotics.  Antibiotics have conservatively saved nearly 100 million lives.  The biggest pharmaceutical blockbuster of all time, the cholesterol lowering statins, was discovered in the ascomycete mold aspergillus.  On the basic research front, in the 1940s the bread mold Neurospora crassa was used to establish the Nobel Prize winning one-gene one-enzyme hypothesis. Saccharomyces cerevisiae was the first eukaryotic organism to have its genome sequenced in 1996.  Since then yeast has been used as a model organism for studying fundamental processes in molecular biology and for the development of new tools in the biotechnology industry.  Recent breakthroughs using yeast as a tool for biotechnology include the low cost production of the anti-malaria drug artemisinin and the production of the first fully synthetic genome.

Fungi are also great organisms to use for teaching genomic biology.  Even though fungi are multicellular eukaryotes with diverse appearances, their genomes are relatively small compared to animals and plants.  A typical fungal genome is approximately 100 times smaller than the human genome -- fungi have very little "junk" DNA!  Large efforts, like the 1000 fungal genomes project at the US Joint Genome Institute (JGI), are using genome sequencing to further our understanding of fungal diversity.

At The Great Lakes Biotech Academy we have chosen to focus predominantly on the biology of fungi and biotechnology applications involving fungi.  This is because some of the most important organisms used in synthetic biology and industrial biotech are fungi.  Fungi are also excellent organisms for teaching complex topics in molecular biology and physiology because they span the microscopic and macroscopic world.   Using fungi, we will be able to explore exciting areas of biology related to multicellular growth, sexual reproduction, taxonomy, and the effects of genetic mutation.  Have a look at some pictures of fungi taken recently at the biotech academy.