“Glowing Mushroom” Discovery Could Revolutionize Biology

Scientists have unlocked the key to bioluminescence.

5. 2. 17 by Christianna Reedy
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Magic Mushrooms

Mushrooms are our favorite fungi. From savory dishes to surprising video game power-ups — we can’t seem to get enough of the little things. What’s more interesting, however, is the fact that mushrooms can be far more relevant to our own progress as a society than we imagined. The Neonothopanus gardneri and Neonothopanus nambi are two distinct species of glow-in-the-dark mushroom found in Brazil and Vietnam respectively, that have reshaped our perspective on bioluminescence permanently.

Neonothopanus gardneri time-lapse. Credit: Cassius V. Stevani/IQ-USP, Brazil

While we have a sound understanding of insects, sea creatures, and even frogs — we’ve been bemused by bioluminescent fungi until now. Researchers from Russia, Japan, and Brazil have finally pinned down the reason for the elusive phenomena that are glowing mushrooms. They published their discovery in Science Advances.

As most luminous species in our lovely ecosystem, the estimated 80 of about 100,000 mushroom species that produce their own light do so to attract insects that can spread their spores to other places in hopes of colonizing new territories.

Not Just Pretty Colors

So now that we know the why, what about the how? The answer lies in the aptly named molecule, luciferin, a compound common in bioluminescent reactions. When this compound reacts with oxygen, the reaction produces oxyluciferin, a light-emitting substance. This electrically charged substance then returns to its ground state by releasing oxygen — this continued cycle allows mushroom to emit light.

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Additionally, enzymes from the mushrooms allowed scientists to make a number of luciferin-like chemicals that glowed different colors.

When we learn more about bioluminescence, humanity ends up with another scietific tool. While natural organisms use the ability for a multitude of reasons — including camouflage, illumination, defense, catching prey, and sexual attraction — we use bioluminescence to aid our research.

With the advent of bioluminescent, we analyse genetic data with the help of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), a molecule that allows scientist to study genes of interest with accurate precision. We are also improving our modern lasers by taking notes from a four-billion-year-old evolutionary process that derived bioluminescence.

By understanding the mechanism that makes mushrooms glow and the patterns shared among multiple organisms using the same ability, we can improve our abilities in research, application, and accessibility.

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