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Food spoilage: Researchers look to fungi for answers

A new grant enables North-West University and two US universities to study how bacteria that live inside the cells of fungi could shape the biology, evolution, biodiversity, and function of these fungi to prevent food spoilage

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It is a known fact that South Africa wastes 10 million tonnes of food per year. Now a group of local researchers will be working with two American universities to investigate how bacteria in fungi could be transformed to prevent food from spoiling.

For this, North-West University has partnered with Cornell and Oregon State universities for a biodiversity grant enabling their joint research.

The grant will focus on three groups of fungi in the Mucoromycota lineage and bacteria that live inside their cells. The fungi to be researched are Glomeromycotina, Mucoromycotina and Mortierellomycotina.

Experts say Glomeromycotina absorbs mineral nutrients, including phosphorus, from the soil and make them accessible to plant roots.

ALSO READ: Re-discovering the food in the food waste

A better understanding of these fungi and their endosymbiotic bacteria may offer organic producers a natural substitute for mineral fertilisers, researchers believe.

This includes phosphorus, which is depleting at an alarming rate. Phosphorus is predominantly used in the global food supply value chain.

Mucoromycotina (also known as sugar or bread mould), on the other hand, are common and disperse readily via spores. They cause food spoilage and mucormycosis. This is a rare, but devastating disease that affects immunocompromised individuals and people with untreated open wounds.

The infections are resistant to anti-fungal treatments and are lethal for half of those inflicted.

Evolutionary diversification

However, researchers hope that a better understanding of the bacterial-fungal interactions will open doors for mucormycosis treatment and limit food spoilage.

Teresa Pawlowska, associate professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology at Cornell University. Photo: Supplied: CU
Teresa Pawlowska, associate professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology at Cornell University. Photo: Supplied: CU

Teresa Pawlowska is an associate professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology at the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

She says researchers will sample fungi from comparable Mediterranean-type and desert biomes across the US and South Africa.

They will then bring samples into the lab and use DNA to identify Mucoromycota fungi and their bacterial symbionts.

Pawlowska indicates that this information will help to investigate each bacterium’s role in evolutionary diversification and Mucoromycota community structuring.

In greenhouses, the researchers will conduct experiments to answer questions about community ecology. They will study whether the bacteria influence fungal ability to compete for resources and space. The team will also address how genetic underpinnings and environmental factors play a role in these relationships.

“This is a novel and highly underappreciated area,” Pawlowska says. “We did not know about these endosymbiotic relationships until recently. So, we are turning a new leaf in exploring fungal biology.”

Four-year food study

To enable this, researchers will team up for the four-year dimensions of biodiversity grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Rasheed Adeleke, associate professor of microbiology and soil science at North-West University. Photo: Supplied/NWU
Rasheed Adeleke, associate professor of microbiology and soil science at North-West University. Photo: Supplied/NWU

The funding programme requires a collaborative partner from a participating country.

The two US universities will share US$2 million from the NSF. North-West University researchers will receive funding from the National Research Foundation.

“We hypothesise that these fungi are not evolving and functioning in isolation, but that their bacterial symbionts drive them, and this is what we want to test,” said Pawlowska.

The co-principal investigators are Jessie Uehling, assistant professor of botany and plant pathology at Oregon State University, and Rasheed Adeleke, associate professor of microbiology and soil science at North-West University.

ALSO READ: Global agreement heralds new dawn for food waste practices

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Sinesipho Tom
Sinesipho Tom
Sinesipho Tom is an audience engagement journalist at Food for Mzansi. Before joining the team, she worked in financial and business news at Media24. She has an appetite for news reporting and has written articles for Business Insider, Fin24 and Parent 24. If you could describe Sinesipho in a sentence you would say that she is a small-town girl with big, big dreams.
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