The dark secret of the oyster mushroom - it's carnivorous

Miles Willis/Getty Images for Ascot Racecourse

The oyster mushroom, a favourite to cultivate for human consumption, has a dark secret — they are carnivorous.

They eat spiders and roundworms using proteins which punch their way into cells, leaving tidy but deadly holes.

The true nature of the mushrooms was uncovered by a research team led by the ARC Imaging Centre at Monash University in Melbourne and Birkbeck College in London.

“I never believed I’d be able to see these proteins in action,” says Dr Michelle Dunstone at Monash University. “It’s an amazing mechanism, and also amazing that we now have the technology to see these hole-punching proteins at work.”

Using a combination of molecular imaging, along with biophysical and computational experiments, the team have been able to show the way the pleurotolysin protein moves, unfolding and refolding to punch the hole in the target cell.

Watch the animation:

“The next step is to take what we’ve learned from the oyster mushroom proteins and compare them with equivalent proteins across nature,” says Michelle. “We’re particularly interested in this family of proteins in humans, especially perforin, which we believe will behave in the same way.”

There are potential applications in medicine: dampening immune responses in people with autoimmune disease; stopping listeria escaping our immune cells; and preventing malaria from infecting the liver.

The research is published in the journal PLOS Biology.

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