- Life Style
Many people in the country don’t know what fungi are or how they can affect their lives, even though they kill many Egyptians every year. But a good understanding of their nature and habitat can open the door for thousands of uses for this biological kingdom.
Ahmed Abdel Azim, mycologist at the Suez Canal University Faculty of Ccience and founder of the Arab Society for Fungal Conservation, says part of the problem is that government institutions don’t view this biological kingdom correctly.
“The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency and the Environment Ministry still treat fungi as plants, which is a big disaster,” Abdel Azim says. “Fungi were identified as a separate, fifth biological kingdom all over the world in 1969. I wonder how Egypt can be the most important country in the region while it still thinks that fungi are plants.”
Fungi are necessary to create balance between the different components of the ecosystem, and guarantee the stability and continuity of life. The country has 2,281 fungi species, with some dating back to the pharaonic era.
To understand the role of fungi, one must understand ecosystems. Ecosystems consist of biotic and abiotic factors. Abiotic factors are nonliving chemical and physical factors in the environment that affect ecosystems, such as air, soil, water and other nonliving things.
Biotic factors are any living components that affect another organism, and are classified into three categories: “producers,” such as plants that are able to produce their own food; “consumers,” such as animals and human beings that depend on others to get their food; and “decomposers,” which break down dead or decaying organisms, such as bacteria and fungi.
When producers and consumers die, fungi decompose their bodies, having the wonderful ability to convert complex materials into inorganic substances.
Abdel Azim says the relationship between humans and fungi can be called “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” In addition to deteriorating wooden and stone monuments and causing smut and rust, fungal infections can lead to dangerous diseases, possibly including cancer.
Many think heating or boiling food kills all the fungi it contains, but the vast majority of fungi resist high temperatures because they produce myctoxins that range from -7 to 40 degrees Celsius — from freezer to room temperature. Fungi become very active in cramped, humid places, so keeping yourself in an air-conditioned room for a long time increases humidity and thus the production of toxins by fungi.
“Most people wonder why the number of cancer, kidney and liver patients has tremendously increased in Egypt in the past few years, but they don’t know that the wrong nutrition habits and the lack of awareness are the main reasons behind this increase,” Abdel Azim says. “Romy cheese, for example, is very common in Egypt even though it’s contaminated by aflatoxins that cause different types of cancer.”
He says peanuts are also dangerous because they are sold in shops without sterilization, providing a suitable environment for fungi growth.
People must also avoid buying fresh juice that’s not prepared at home, because some shops use rotten fruit. Women living in rural areas must also stop feeding their chickens old, moldy bread, he says.
But while some fungi can be lethal, others are very beneficial for food and medicine. Mushrooms contain a high percentage of protein, vitamins and minerals, which are nutritious and protect against cancer — that’s why it’s known as “the meat of the poor,” since it contains the same nutritious value of meat, but at a lower price.
Some fungi secrete enzymes and acids that help to treat diseases, such as the Penicillium fungus, which produces the antibiotic penicillin.
Fatma Mahmoud Salem, a master’s student in medical mycology at Suez Canal University, says that instead of removing medicinal plants from the soil to extract active healing ingredients from them, fungi can provide an alternative.
“We can instead get a small part of this plant, isolate the fungus that lives on it and grow it in a suitable environment, so that we can extract the active ingredient from the fungus without the need for destroying the whole plant,” Salem says. “I succeeded in isolating the Laccase enzyme, which is necessary for manufacturing drugs treating cancer and rheumatoid.”
In addition, Hekmat al-Morshedy, a laboratory specialist in mycology — the study of fungi — says it’s possible to use fungi to help get rid of plastic waste.
“Recycling plastic is a myth,” she says. “Every plastic bottle we throw away takes a thousand years to completely decompose.”
Garbage collectors get rid of most plastics by burying them in the ground, which pollutes the soil, or burning them, which pollutes the air and causes lung disease.
“I am studying the possibility of isolating the kinds of fungi that can live on plastic to search for the types that are able to fragment and decompose plastics,” she says. “Then we can grow them in suitable atmospheres and distribute them in garbage dumps, which will help us get rid of the piles of plastic that pollute the environment.”
Abdel Azim says that paying more attention to fungi research could help the country overcome many of its main economic problems. He says the fuel crisis could be solved by using mycodiesel fungi, which provides a promising alternative to fossil fuels by producing biodiesel in a natural, cheap way.
Also, isolating fungi from salt marshes and transferring their genes to wheat seeds could help produce a new generation of Egyptian genetically modified wheat that could be irrigated by seawater, increasing the country’s wheat production and decreasing its reliance on imports, he says.
Located in St. Catherine in Sinai, the Community and Environmental Services Association is one of the most successful projects established in Egypt depending mainly on producing types of fungi such as mushrooms. It was created by Abdel Azim in one of the country’s poorest areas, an area that depends on underground water infected with fungi, bacteria and uranium.
People living there suffer from diseases such as chronic diarrhea and tooth decay. But, he says, the establishment of laboratories that produce mushrooms on the ground and the training of Bedouin women have improved living standards in the community.
A water-purification unit using solar energy, a medical laboratory and a mobile veterinary unit have also been built in St. Catherine, helping reduce many endemic diseases, Abdel Azim says.
Abdel Azim says he and his students have also started establishing the largest mycology library in the Middle East.
“This library aims at collecting all local and international old books, research and papers published about fungi since 1935, and saving them digitally to make it easier for researchers and students to get the information they need,” he says. “We’ve collected about 7,000 references as of now, and I hope such a project will save the history and future of fungi in Egypt.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.