Friday, May 20, 2011

Glowing Ghost Mushrooms Rediscovered in Brazil After 170 Years

Panellus stipticus, one species of glowing mushrooms. Photo courtesy: Wiki Commons

If you think glowing mushrooms are the figment of some trippy imagination, think again. After its initial discovery back in 1840, one of the most bioluminescent species of mushroom known to humans was not seen again until a pair of primatologists recently stumbled upon it in the Brazilian forests.

Known as Neonothopanus gardneri, it's one of the 71 recognized species of bioluminescent mushrooms -- out of 100,000 identified fungi species -- and can grow up to three inches in diameter. Sometimes called "ghost mushrooms" due to their eerie appearance, they are also poisonous to humans, and glow so bright that one can use their green light to read a newspaper in a dark room.

According to ScienceDaily, glowing mushrooms were first 'discovered' by British botanist George Gardner, who chanced across a group of boys playing with a glowing object in the streets of Vila de Natividade, Brazil. He sent some specimens back to England's Kew Herbarium, where it was named Agaricus gardneri. It has since been reclassified and renamed Neonothopanus gardneri.

It was not until 2005 that the species was found again, this time by two primatologists, Patricia Izar of São Paulo University and Dorothy Fragaszy of the University of Georgia in Athens, who chanced upon it growing at the base of some rotting trees.

Apparently, the locals already knew of the existence of these amazing mushrooms, calling them flor-de-coco, or flower of the coconut, since it grew at the decaying parts of the pindoba, or the dwarf palm tree.

After contacting Brazilian chemist Cassius Stevani, the two scientists returned the next year to collect more specimens. Stevani, in collaboration with San Francisco State University professor of ecology and evolution Dennis Desjardin, published their findings in Mycologia on the mysterious mechanics behind these mushrooms' glow.

As ScienceDaily explains:
Researchers believe that the fungi make light in the same way that a firefly does, through a chemical mix of a luciferin compound and a luciferase. Luciferase is an enzyme that aids the interaction among luciferin, oxygen and water to produce a new compound that emits light. But scientists haven't yet identified the luciferin and luciferase in fungi.

"They glow 24 hours a day, as long as water and oxygen are available," Desjardin explained. "But animals only produce this light in spurts. This tells us that the chemical that is acted upon by the enzyme in mushrooms has to be readily available and abundant."

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