Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A New Direction for Antibiotic Development Thanks to Fungi

Could there be a new form of antibiotic? Scientists have identified a new substance with antibiotic tendencies. Typical antibiotics are non-protein organic compounds, but this new substance has been found to be a protein called copsin.

Copsin has been isolated from a common inky cap mushroom Coprinopsis cinerea, a fungus that grows on horse dung. Research found that copsin was the protein that enabled the fungus to kill certain bacteria. They have currently found that copsin is a very stable protein. It is resistant to exposure to protein degrading enzymes and high temperatures for several hours. It acts by inhibiting reproduction of the bacteria by binding to an essential building block in the wall of bacteria. Further investigations into the protein aim to discover what possible uses copsin can provide.

One thought is it could help discover how fungi use this ability to resist bacteria without having the issue of resistance, a major problem with today’s antibiotics. Uses of copsin have also been suggested in the food industry.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Flying Fungus - Covert Mycelia!

Drones (unmanned remotely controlled aircraft on which equipment such as cameras are mounted) have been used by the military for some time for high level surveillance tasks, but now are increasingly available to civil authorities and members of the public, though their use is subject to strict regulations in the UK.

A student team has recently created a drone that consists of the vegetative part of fungi call the mycelium and protective sheets of bacteria covering it. This provides the structure that contains the controls, propellers and battery (which remain non-biological). 

This aim of this design was to have a device that can degrade into the landscape and not leaving any evidence of its presence. Also, by using proteins from wasp saliva, the team was able to waterproof the drone, maximising bio-degradability. Despite not currently being fully bio-degradable, the team’s overall aim to achieve this in the near future. Real world applications such as flying over sensitive environments or even spying have been suggested.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Toxic Mould in Herbal Medicines

Dried herbal medicines

It is estimated that the herbal medicine industry is worth $60 billion. Over 60% of people use medicinal plants to treat illnesses and relieve pain, but with the majority of medicinal plants unregulated, what could those people also be exposing themselves to.

A new study has found 43% of the plants naturally contaminated with toxins, 30% of these being carcinogenic substance known as aflatoxins. They found 26% contains ochratoxin A, a toxic substance to the liver and kidneys and can increase the susceptibility to disease as it suppresses the immune system.

A call for greater regulation on these products has been called for to ensure the health of those using them. The public need to be aware that just because it is natural, does not mean it is safe. The products can be contaminated at any stage of production with consumers unaware whether the products they purchase have toxic levels of substances. To benefit from this industry, controls need to be put into place that ensures the safety of the user.

Original article:

Friday, 31 October 2014

Aflatoxin, an Invisible Food Hazard?

Part of the popular media have long been making much out of the fact that fungi such as Aspergillus can produce highly toxic compounds when growing under the right conditions. The right conditions can cause contamination on plant material that forms part of our food chain, so it follows that these toxins are poisoning us. Can this be correct?

There is certainly plenty of evidence that if left unchecked, mould contamination of foods can cause quite serious health problems but these are mainly in the developing world where crops are sometimes poorly stored and mouldy food is the only food available on some occasions. People that are forced to eat mouldy food can develop liver cancer and children can have their growth stunted.

In parts of the world that are more strictly regulated the presence of mycotoxin in food is highly regulated with regular testing of many food crops, but this article suggests that there are weak points in the screening mechanisms. In the US monitoring is only carried out when food passes between states, so if there is a contaminated batch of food (e.g. grain produced during a severe drought) and it is consumed e.g. as animal feed then there is no mechanism in place to detect it. Consequently animal food products could contain higher levels of toxin.

Several such cases were detected in EU in 2013 resulting in widespread contamination of milk intended for human consumption.

The cause of the contamination was quickly identified and removed from the food chain (Grain emanating from Serbia in this case)  but it might beg the question that cases occur that go undetected, even in the more highly developed countries of the world.

It has been suggested that global climate warming might be contributing to this problem.  Perhaps it is time the screening and regulation was reviewed and education of the public, in particular farmers stepped up to combat this health problem. It might need more investment in equipment for safely storing food crops or it might be a case for achieving more harmony in toxin regulation between countries. Whatever it takes, this potential health hazard is sure not to go away without our intervention.

NB one or two hints and tips for the domestic user to avoid mycotoxins are mentioned here.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Wikipedia as the Front Matter to all Research for Public Use

Wikipedia is a initiative that has become extremely successful at providing encyclopedic coverage of almost any subject you might be find interesting or useful. It has a very simple modus operandi in that it permits anyone to write articles on any subject they wish. Others are then given open permission to edit those articles. No-one owns any part of the project, neutrality and freedom are prized. There are only five rules governing content generation, the fifth of which is that there are no firm rules!

A recipe for chaos? Not at all - in practice acts of ignorance or vandalism are quickly removed - this has been a huge success for collaborative work and free access. Quoting Wikipedia:
Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into one of the largest reference websites, attracting 470 million unique visitors monthly as of February 2012. [1] There are more than 76,000 active contributors working on more than 31,000,000 articles in 285 languages. As of today, there are 4,630,235 articles in English. Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to augment the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia. (See the statistics page for more information.) Where once it took huge amounts of work to maintain comprehensive encyclopedias and it could only be done at high cost we now have far larger bodies of work that are maintained free of charge.

Many of the articles featured are contributed by researchers using their most recent research results.
There is a suggestion that this could be taken a step further for the research communities themselves:

 A session at the recent Wikimania conference provided an opportunity for discussion: “The fount of all knowledge – wikipedia as the front matter to all research“. 
The abstract describes how: This discussion focuses on how Wikipedia could become the entry or discovery point to all significant research for the general public, and for scholars who are working just outside of the topic of interest. For most people, even researchers from closely related areas, summaries and explanations of a piece of research can be a crucial means both to discover and to begin to get into a new piece of research. 
 Currently overviews of research topics are supported through two mechanisms: reviews and “front matter” content. A review is a systematic summary of a field, written by an expert. These go out of date quickly, particularly in rapidly moving areas of research. Front matter is “News and Views” pieces, often found at the “front” of scientific journals that explain newly published research and put it in context. This often includes a discussion of explaining how the research is an important advance and its broader societal implications. 
 Both of these functions could easily be provided in a more up to date and scalable manner by tapping into a global community of experts. Wikipedia articles are often the top web search result for initial queries in many research areas and these articles are a major source of traffic for scientific journals. As the first port of call for many users of research and a significant discovery route the potential for Wikipedia as a form of dynamic, expertly curated “front matter” for the whole research literature is substantial. This facilitated discussion session will focus on how this role could be enhanced, what is currently missing and what risks exist in taking this route. 

There are difficulties to overcome but it is easy to see  the attraction of the availability of constantly updated extensive reviews for the use of the professional community. Currently reviews are out of date by the time they are published, this technology may make that delay in disseminating and summarising scientific research a thing of the past.

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