The molecular mechanisms that cause rare species of mushrooms to glow in the dark have baffled scientists for years. A new study set to finally uncover the mystery behind their bioluminescence revealed that it is in fact based on luciferin oxidation, the same chemical process used by fireflies.

There is something remarkable about fungi and their potential to adapt to challenging environments, in which many other organisms just give up. Apart from the things we appreciate them for from a therapeutic and culinary perspective, fungi are also acknowledged for their straight “out-off-the-box” approach to evolution by biologists. Particularly creative tricks in their arsenal include the ability to produce their own wind, mind-control insects and grow larger than any other living being on the planet, to name just a few. But perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing are the rare glow-in-the-dark mushrooms, which use a natural process called bioluminescence to attract insects in low-light environments.

Aside from the appealing sci-fi look, these mushrooms also grabbed scientists’ attention with the applicative potential of their underlying molecular mechanisms. Bioluminescence is widely used in various experimental settings carried out in molecular diagnostic laboratories, a prominent example of that being the green fluorescent protein (GFP) which recently revolutionized the field. Finding another such component in mushrooms could therefore hold groundbreaking potential, but experts have been struggling to pin it down for years.

However, just this month, researchers from Russia, Japan and Brazil have finally unraveled the mechanism that causes these mushrooms to glow in the dark and it turns out it is based on a molecule called luciferin – the same used by fireflies. This ‘fungal luciferin’ acts as substrate for the luciferase enzyme, which oxidizes it to produce bioluminescent light. Moreover, the researchers discovered that the molecule can be biochemically tweaked to produce light in different  shades of color. They published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

As for the implications of their discovery, it is still too early to say what it could bring to the table. The discovery of an adaptable fungal bioluminescent molecule does indeed sound promising for in vitro diagnostics, but further tests will need to be conducted to screen for any applicative advantages.

Learn more about glowing mushrooms and see them in action in the video below:

By Luka Zupančič, MSc, University of Applied Sciences Technikum Vienna.


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