How to grow toxin-free corn

transgenic corn infected with fungus
GRAIN TRAINING Genetically altered corn infected with Aspergillus fungus (shown) may be able to prevent the fungus from releasing carcinogenic toxins.

Corn genetically engineered to make ninjalike molecules can launch an attack on invading fungi, stopping the production of carcinogenic toxins.

These specialized RNA molecules lie in wait until they detect Aspergillus, a mold that can turn grains and beans into health hazards. Then the molecules pounce, stopping the mold from producing a key protein responsible for making aflatoxins, researchers report March 10 in Science Advances. With aflatoxins and other fungal toxins affecting up to 25 percent of crops worldwide, the finding could help boost global food safety, the researchers conclude.

“If there’s no protein, no toxin,” says study coauthor Monica Schmidt, a plant geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Schmidt and colleagues used a technique called RNA interference, which takes advantage of a natural defense mechanism organisms use to protect against viruses. The researchers modified corn to make it produce short pieces of RNA that match up to sections of an RNA in the fungus made from the aflC gene. That gene encodes the first step of a biochemical pathway that the fungus uses to make the toxins. When the corn’s modified RNAs match up with those of the fungus, that triggers Aspergillus to chop up its own RNA, preventing a key protein, and thus the toxin, from being made.

Then, the team infected both…

Common fungus may raise asthma risk

Pichia fungus
NOT SO FUN The fungus Pichia (shown), a type of yeast, is linked to kids’ likelihood of developing asthma, new research shows.

BOSTON — A fungus among us may tip the body toward developing asthma.

There’s mounting evidence that early exposure to microbes can protect against allergies and asthma (SN Online: 7/20/16). But “lo and behold, some fungi seem to put kids at risk for asthma,” microbiologist Brett Finlay said February 17 at a news conference during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Infants whose guts harbored a particular kind of fungus — a yeast called Pichia — were more likely to develop asthma than babies whose guts didn’t have the fungus, Finlay reported. Studies in mice and people suggest that exposure to some fungi can both trigger and exacerbate asthma, but this is the first work linking asthma to a fungus in the gut microbiome of infants.

Finlay, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and his colleagues had recently identified four gut bacteria in Canadian infants that seem to provide asthma protection. To see if infants elsewhere were similarly protected by such gut microbes, he…

The World’s Funkiest Fungi

When it comes to the natural world, fungi are (truly) in a kingdom all their own. They help humans brew tasty beverages like beer, they recycle nutrients from dead plants and animals, and they provide nutrients for trees. Of course there are others that destroy food crops and kill any humans who accidentally ingest them. You never know what you’re going to get with fungus. In celebration of their weird and wonderful world, here are 15 fungi that will blow your mind (some of them in a literal sense).


Jerzy Opioła via Wikimedia Commons

Hidden underground in Malheur National Forest, Oregon lives a creature so large it makes the blue whale look small. Meet the Humongous Fungus, the world’s biggest living organism. This four-square-mile patch is mostly hidden from view (a few odd mushrooms pop up here and there), but its impact is, well, humungous: this type of fungus causes root disease and kills conifers across North America.


Dan Molter via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

This blister-like fungus grows on decaying logs and fallen branches, looking flat and rougher in dry conditions and swollen after rain. Despite its unappetizing appearance, the fungus is edible—though you might want to add some seasoning.


Bernypisa via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the more disgusting-looking fungi of the world might cause concern for hikers who stumble across it. But the red liquid oozing out of it isn’t blood—it emerges due to guttation. This is a process that causes rapidly growing or metabolizing plants to excrete excess fluids. For the bleeding tooth fungus, the fluid happens to be bright red.


lalalfdfa via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are plenty of fungi that exhibit bioluminescence, but this particular species from Southeast Asia is the oldest known example. What makes it give off that eerie green glow? In 2015 scientists discovered a compound called hispidin, an antioxidant that undergoes a chemical reaction to create a glowing light.


Gargoyle888 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Do you prefer your poultry in the form of nuggets, drumsticks—or maybe as fungus? This edible mushroom tastes like—you guessed it—chicken. It’s bright yellow and has no gills (the fine, black material you may have noticed on the underside of Portobello mushrooms). But watch out for a variation of this mushroom growing on conifers, since they’re a different species…