Discovery about evolution of fungi has implications for humans, says U of M researcher

tualistic relationships and recycling dead organisms. He estimates that there are about 1.5 million species on the Earth, but only about 10 percent of those are known. And civilization has only identified uses for a few of those, such as using yeast to make bread, beer, wine, cheese and a few antibiotics.

"Understanding the relationships among fungi has many potential benefits for humans," McLaughlin said. "It provides tools to identify unknown species that may lead to new products for medicine and industry. It also helps us to manage natural areas, such as Minnesota's oak savannahs, where the fungi play important roles but are often hidden from view."

Fungi are also intriguing because their cells are surprisingly similar to human cells, McLaughlin said. In 1998 scientists discovered that fungi split from animals about 1.538 billion years ago, whereas plants split from animals about 1.547 billion years ago. This means fungi split from animals 9 million years after plants did, in which case fungi are actually more closely related to animals than to plants. The fact that fungi had motile cells propelled by flagella that are more like those in animals than those in plants, supports that.

Not all fungi are beneficial to humans. A small percent have been linked to human diseases, including life-threatening conditions. Treating these can be risky because human and fungal cells are similar. Any medicine that kills the fungus can also harm the patient. Thus knowing more about fungi helps identify new and better ways to treat serious fungal infections in humans. Fungi are also the major cause of disease in agricultural crops, so understanding them also helps track and control these plant diseases.

McLaughlin and his colleagues will continue their efforts to establish genetic relationships among fungi and to understand their roles in nature. Additional structural studies, especially of key species, are needed to determine how the organis

Contact: Mark Cassutt
University of Minnesota

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