Fungal Success Credited To A Virus


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

354 Fungal Success Credited To A Virus
Fungi turn up everywhere. Part of their success may be a transcription factor they stole from a virus. Algirdas Gelazius/Shutterstock

It's time to pay the mushrooms on your dinner plate more respect. Fungi seem innocuous, but have done a great job of taking over much of the world. It appears that the adoption of a virus that might otherwise have destroyed them is the key to the success of 90,000 fungal species.

Dr. Nicolas Buchler of Duke University is investigating the proteins that make fungi so formidable, in a low profile sort of way. If you doubt their claims to world domination consider that a candidate for the largest living organism is known as the humungous fungus, weighing 10 tonnes (11 tons) and covering 15 hectares (37 acres).


Understanding the workings all fungi share could lead to antifungal drugs effective against the broad spectrum of fungal diseases, and possibly ways to control the spread of molds on food. We might even be able to turn such knowledge to use where fungi are our friends, whether as food sources, brewer's yeast, or even raw material for batteries

Admire, but don't eat these poisonous fungi. Ermakov Alexander/Shutterstock

In eLife Buchler presents evidence that early in fungal evolution the forerunners of modern mushrooms acquired the transcription factor SBF, used to control cell division. Since cell division is among the most basic functions of living things, the importance of a good protein to control it cannot be overstated.

From there on fungi put SBF to use, although some soil-dwelling fungi also use E2F, which does the same job in animals and plants. The advantage of SBF over E2F is unclear, but must be substantial given how widespread it is among fungi whose ancestors used E2F.


Rather than evolving SBF themselves, fungi seem to have got it through horizontal gene transfer, the process where DNA is imported from another species.

"The event could have triggered or facilitated the emergence of the entire fungal kingdom," Buchler said in a statement, raising the question of how it occurred.

Buchler and his colleagues could find no evidence of SBF in any non-fungal eukaryotes, the domain of life that contains plants, animals, fungi and even protozoa. Bacteria and archaea also don't appear to use SBF. Outside the fungal kingdom it only exists in DNA viruses, leading Buchler to conclude that this is where the fungi acquired the useful protein.

The most likely scenario, according to Buchler, is that a virus did what viruses do best, invading an early fungus and hijacking its cells to make more viruses. However, instead of either succumbing, or developing an immune system capable of fighting the invader, the ancestral fungus turned the virus to its own uses, making use of the fact SBF binds to the same sites as E2F, and allowing the fungus to make spores and invade the tissues of other species more effectively than could have been done with E2F.


"The fungal cell cycle never stopped, it just went through a period where it had two control switches competing for the same genetic real estate," Buchler said


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  • fungi,

  • horizontal gene transfer,

  • cell division control