Dr Ozgur Bayram and Dr Ozlem Sarikaya-Bayram have unearthed a novel protein complex, methyltransferase, which could be used to tackle fungal toxins which attack immune-deficient humans, and similar toxins that destroy 10% of the annual global food harvest, enough food to feed the entire African continent.
“The protein complex we discovered can be used in the study of similar protein complexes, and used to help develop drugs to target other fungal growth,” said Dr Bayram.
“This is a big step that can be used to help people with weak immune systems, such as HIV patients or organ transplant patients.
“We are studying mycotoxins which also spoil around 10% of the global food harvest. These toxins cause tumours which kill plants before we can harvest them.
“They also create problems during harvest, storage, and transport on the way to the consumer.
“This is most evident in peanuts, walnuts, and crops grown in tropical climates. The aflatoxin produced by some Aspergillus are among the most potent natural carcinogens in the world. It damages the DNA cells in the human liver. If we consume mycotoxin-infected foods, we can get cancer of the liver.
“If we understand these toxins better, we can find ways to inhibit their growth and reduce pathogens. In the future, companies will use this research to develop new drugs to target these toxins, with no negative impact on their human host.”
Secondary metabolites produced by fungi include mycotoxins aflatoxin, amanitins, and fumonisins, which cause disease and poisoning when ingested by humans and animals.
The researchers found that the novel regulatory protein complex sensed various environmental signals and prevented the production of sterigmato-cystin (an aflatoxin-like molecule), and increased the production of orsellinic acid (an antimicrobial compound that kills micro organisms or inhibits their growth) and its derivatives.
Dr Bayram said: “There are an estimated 5m fungal species on our planet, and many are medically and bio-technologically relevant with positive and negative impacts on human health and plant growth.” .
They added that, while a threat is posed to health by fungal mycotoxin contamination of food and fungal infections in immune-deficient patients, fungi can also be hugely beneficial.
On the positive side, fungi produce potent antivirals, antifungals, and antibiotics, such as penicillin, which has saved millions of lives.