Researchers discover and describe two types of fungus for the first time

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have found and described two types of fungus for the first time. The fungi infect adult flies and then form a hole in the abdomen of their hosts’ bodies. Infected flies then buzz around for days as the fungi gobble them up from within and expel fungal spores from these holes in their bodies. The discovery marks a contribution to the mapping of global biodiversity. At the same time, the new studies open the door to potentially useful pharmacological discoveries from nature.

Researchers at the Institute of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen and the Natural History Museum of Denmark have found and described two new species of mushrooms. Both mushrooms were discovered in the capital region of Denmark – with Strongwellsea tigrinae, found in Jægerspris and Strongwellsea acerosaon Amager.

The fungi infect two species of Danish flies (Coenosia tigrina and Coenosia testacea). In doing so, they create a large hole in the stomach of their infected hosts. The flies whirl around for days as fungal spores from this hole are released into the air and drift on new victims. For example, if a fly comes by to mate, it is at risk of becoming infected. The mushrooms are fed from the posterior segments of the fly bodies to the end. After a few days, the fly lies on its back and cramps in the last hours of its life.

This is an exciting and bizarre aspect of biodiversity that we discovered in Denmark. In and of itself, this mapping of the new and unknown biodiversity is valuable. At the same time, however, it is about new basic knowledge that can serve as a basis for experimental investigations of the pathways of infection and the bioactive substances involved. “

Jørgen Eilenberg, Professor, Institute of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen

The fly species Coenosia tigrina with two large holes in its belly. The holes are a result of infection with the fungus Strongwellsea tigrinae. The infectious spores are shed through these holes.

The fungal parasites are likely to infect only a small percentage of these two species of flies, which ironically precede other flies. These mushrooms survive the stress of winter with the help of their thick-walled, orange or yellow dormant spores. The researchers believe that these dormant spores germinate in spring and infect flies when they become active.

“It is fascinating how well the life cycles of these mushrooms are adapted to the life of the flies they target,” says Professor Jørgen Eilenberg.

Could pave the way for new drugs

The ability of these mushrooms to keep flies fresh enough to roam around for days while being eaten internally has sparked speculation among researchers that the mushrooms might produce substances that “dopes” their hosts. Research on other types of fungi that infect leafhoppers suggests that amphetamine-like substances may be at play.

We therefore suspect that these mushrooms can produce amphetamine-like substances that keep a fly’s energy level high until the end. At the same time, we have the theory that the fungi also produce substances that keep microorganisms away from the fungal wound on the fly. We definitely want to continue our research as this has the potential to discover these substances and use them later, maybe in medicine, “says Jørgen Eilenberg.

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Journal reference:

Eilenberg, J., et al. (2020) Strongwellsea tigrinae and Strongwellsea acerosa (Entomophthorales: Entomophthoraceae), two new species that infect Dipteran hosts of the genus Coenosia (Muscidae). Journal of Invertebrate Pathology. doi.org/10.1016/j.jip.2020.107444.

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