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Two-faced fungi: NMSU professor teaches the good and bad about mushrooms

Throughout history, mushrooms have had a varied reputation as a delicious source of food, poisonous venom thanks to Shakespeare, and even a hallucinatory drug.



New Mexico State University professor, Soum Sanogo teaches a course on the biology of fungi, with emphasis on their role in our environment. Fungi can be both beneficial and detrimental to humans, animals and crops.

New Mexico State University professor Soum Sanogo discusses his research on fungi. Fungi can be a major concern for growers in New Mexico. It affects the chile, peanut and onion industries, among many others.

Soum Sanogo, New Mexico State University professor of fungal plant pathology, conducts research on soilborne plant pathogens. His fungal biology class, which includes a mushroom cooking demonstration lesson, teaches students the good, the bad and the ugly about fungi.

The newly added course brings into perspective the beneficial aspects of fungi and how they help the environment as well as how detrimental they can be to crops, humans and animals.

The Good

Aside from the mushrooms you buy at the stores, fungi are everywhere. The edible ones play a major role in food production.

?Fungi feed us,? Sanogo said. ?We are not only able to eat them in the form of mushrooms, but they are utilized in making food that we use daily like in the making of cheese and in making of yeast for bread or beer.?

Certain fungi also have proven to have medicinal qualities, and have been used as catalysts in making medicine, especially antibiotics.

?Historically, we know that the first generation of antibiotics were made out of fungi in the 1920s, with the discovery of penicillin, which is produced by some species of Penicillium, a certain type of fungi,? Sanogo explained.

The Bad

Sanogo is researching soilborne plant diseases of concern to growers in the state in an effort to help them understand which fungi cause these diseases and how they can be prevented.

?Soilborne diseases, which include those caused by fungi, have been a primary problem in vegetable crops in New Mexico,? Sanogo said.

Chile, pecans, watermelons, peanuts, alfalfa, onions and sunflowers are some of the crops affected by fungi and other soilborne pathogens.

?For example, the chile wilt is a problem for our growers,? he said. ?The fungi invade the plant, make their way into the stem, halting the plant?s ability to retain water and nutrients, so it dies.?

The peanut market in Eastern New Mexico is one of the most affected industries because it is an underground crop.

?Fungi love Valencia peanut plants,? Sanogo said. ?They cause root rot, which has also affects alfalfa. Agriculture always comes with challenges, particularly diseases caused by fungi.?

His program and outreach activities focus on controlling fungi in a way that is friendly on the plants, the soil and the overall environment.


The Ugly

The other side of fungi is harmful, poisonous and can cause diseases. Sanogo warns that ?the prettier or the more exotic fungi look, the deadlier they can be.?

?People who go hiking or like to walk in wooded areas must be really careful about picking mushrooms because some are deadly,? he said. ?Fungi can harm humans, animals and plants.?

Furthering his research, Sanogo is analyzing the quality of the air in the borderland, looking for what types of fungi are in the air and how their characteristics affect the air and certain respiratory diseases.

?I have come to the conclusion that there are many types of fungi in the air, and although they are not necessarily dangerous to our health, if there is a large amount fungi in the air, it can compromise the quality.?

Although the results of the research have not yet been published, Sanogo said fungi in the air are commonly found in the urban and desert landscapes and do not pose any threats to human health.

Sanogo warns against jogging or walking during dusty seasons because fungi are lifted from the soil to the air and there is higher exposure, but fungi can be a more serious health problem indoors when there is mold, causing respiratory complications.

?Mold can be very dangerous,? he said. ? It is usually caused by high moisture conditions in the home, leading to the proliferation of mold.?