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This 200-Acre, ‘Humungous Fungus’ May Help Unravel Why Cancer Genes Are Unstable

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the individual mushrooms of  Armillaria

The individual mushrooms on this 200-acre fungus only live a few weeks, but the organism itself has been around for some 2,500 years, scientists think. (Credit: Johann Bruhn)

In the mid-’80s, scientists discovered a giant fungus growing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Now, researchers have found the organism is at least 2,500 years old. And the secret to the mushroom’s longevity might be a genome that’s highly resistant to mutation, the team reports today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The discovery could help researchers figure out why cancer genomes are so unstable.

Forest Recycler

In 1983, Johann Bruhn planted red pines in the forest. Within the next few years, the trees began to die. The trend continued for about 15 years. Bruhn, a forest health specialist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, traced the trees’ deaths to a species of honey mushroom dubbed Armillaria gallica, a parasitic fungus that preys on trees weakened by drought, insects and other fungal infections. Bruhn examined the fungus, taking it out of the forest to find out whether a unique clone was responsible for the deaths. That’s when he stumbled on something unexpected.

“It looked like one of these clones … extended off into the forest,” Bruhn said. “We didn’t know how far.”

So he and a team of researchers collected more fungus samples further and further afield. By 1992, the researchers knew the fungus was big. They estimated its mass (about 11 tons) and age (at least 1,500 years-old) and reported their findings in a scientific journal.

But the team hadn’t reached the edge of what became known as the “humongous fungus.” That only happened in the last few years. Now, Bruhn and colleagues estimate the fungus is about 1,000 years older and four times bigger than they previously thought.

mushroom clone sample

An isolated sample of the “humungous fungus” clone. (Credit: Johann Bruhn)

Cancer Contrast

The discovery begged the question: How did it survive for so long and get so big? The researchers suspected that the fungus must be incredibly stable genetically. So the team sequenced the organism’s genome from collected samples.

“It turned out that this fungus, this clone of Armillaria gallica, has an extremely low rate of mutation,” Bruhn said. The find is especially surprising given the fungus is so large. Bruhn and colleagues estimate it spreads through nearly 190 acres of the forest floor.

The individual mushrooms themselves last just a few weeks, but the clone itself, as identified by its genetic code, persists. Bruhn compares it to a redwood tree, where the most ancient wood cells are long-dead. “The defining feature of an individual is its unique genetic code that defines the rule set for its continued existence,” he said. “In this sense, the cell lineage of the humungous fungus dates back to a single sexual mating event roughly 2,500 years ago that defines its way of life.”

And, perhaps most intriguingly, the stability of the mushroom’s genome stands in stark to contrast to cancers, which have radically unstable genetic material.

“Our A. gallica must be at the opposite extreme as cancer,” Bruhn said. The fungus’ mutation rate is “a counterpoint to cancer mutation.”

“It could be an interesting point of comparison,” James Anderson, a population geneticist who co-led the new work with Bruhn, said in a statement. “Cancer is so unstable, mutates at a high rate and is prone to genomic changes, while A. gallica is a very persistent organism with few mutations.”

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Ecology

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Ecology

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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