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Exploring the Potential of Fungi: From Hobby to Future Biotechnologies

September has arrived, and with it comes the perfect time for mushroom picking. Mushroom picking is a beloved hobby in the Baltic and Scandinavian countries, where forests are teeming with people equipped with knives and baskets, eagerly searching for orange-cap bolete and chanterelles. It is an activity that holds fond memories for many, including myself. However, in this blog, I would like to shift our focus away from the act of mushroom picking and instead explore the potential and uses of microscopic mushrooms called fungi in biotechnology.

The world of fungi is vast and diverse, boasting an incredible range of species. From the edible mushrooms that grace our dinner plates to the microscopic fungi such as yeast that have played a significant role in society, e.g., yeasts have been crucial in the production of bread, beer, and wine, impacting our daily lives for thousands of years. Fungi hold immense potential for various applications in biotechnology, offering opportunities for innovation and advancement.[1]


As society moves away from relying on fossil fuels, there are already various challenges that need to be addressed using biological solutions. Key technologies for this transition include utilizing fungi (and bacteria) to produce proteins, metabolites, and chemicals, as well as using microbial enzymes for biological processing instead of chemical methods, e.g.; currently, researchers are developing new biorefinery technologies that can convert agricultural and industrial waste into more valuable products[2].

In this blog post, I would like to share an example from my research. During my five years of Ph.D. studies at Riga Technical University (Latvia) and KTH Royal Institute of Technologies (Sweden), I focused on studying the fungal potential for wastewater treatment of pharmaceutical substances. The presence of pharmaceutical substances in aquatic environments is becoming an increasingly concerning issue, as it can have negative effects on both ecosystems and human health. Unfortunately, current wastewater treatment methods are not always equipped to effectively remove hazardous substances from municipal wastewater, allowing them to enter the environment and pose a threat to living organisms. It is, therefore, crucial to enhance traditional wastewater treatment processes by advancing technologies.

One promising method for removing pharmaceutical substances from municipal wastewater might be the use of filamentous fungi. This method has been found to be cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and highly effective. Through my thesis research, I conducted a thorough literature review. I carried out batch and pilot-scale experiments, which provided new knowledge that can be used for future investigations on wastewater treatment with fungi. These findings indicate that fungi have potential for application in wastewater treatment. However, further research and exploration to overcome method limitations and possible applications are still needed. Therefore, I encourage all young researchers to take a closer look at fungi and other microorganisms and consider a future career in biotechnology. Investigating their potential use in solving society’s needs can lead to new discoveries and contribute to a more sustainable future. By exploring the potential of fungi in fields such as wastewater treatment, we can develop innovative solutions to pressing environmental issues.

In conclusion, fungi are incredibly diverse organisms with a vast array of potential applications. From their role in ecosystems to their ability to breathe and even consume light, they continue to surprise and amaze the world. However, there is still so much we don’t know about them. With most fungi still unknown to science (an estimated 3.8 million fungi exist worldwide – and yet, more than 90% of them are currently unknown[3]), there is a world of discovery waiting to be explored. By investing in research and expanding our knowledge of fungi, we can unlock their full potential and harness their power for the benefit of society and the environment.

So, the next time you deep into the woods in search of mushrooms, remember to appreciate these incredible organisms for more than just their culinary value. Fungi hold the key to a whole world of possibilities in biotechnology, offering us a glimpse into a future where nature’s wonders can be utilized to improve our lives in countless ways.


[1] Meyer, V., Basenko, E.Y., Benz, J.P. et al. Growing a circular economy with fungal biotechnology: a white paper. Fungal Biol Biotechnol 7, 5 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40694-020-00095-z

[2] Lange, L., Agger, J.W., Meyer, A.S. (2020). Fungal Biotechnology: Unlocking the Full Potential of Fungi for a More Sustainable World. In: Nevalainen, H. (eds) Grand Challenges in Fungal Biotechnology. Grand Challenges in Biology and Biotechnology. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-29541-7_1

[3] J. Riley. 8 fantastic facts about fungi. https://www.bbcearth.com/news/8-fantastic-facts-about-fungi

Author:
PhD Brigita Dejus
Senior Researcher
Riga Technical University
Water Research and Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory
 
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