Medical Mycology – History, Present, and Future

We’ve talked already in this course about the uses of fungi as yeast in bread, as mushrooms in food, and as decomposers in the ecosystem. However, we did not get the chance to fully dive into the world of medical mycology – the use of fungi in medicine. We’ve all heard some worrisome fungal stories, be it a case of moldy bread, Athlete’s foot, antibiotics disturbing microbial balance in the body, or more seriously, immunocompromised patients, such as those suffering from HIV/AIDS, struggling with life-threatening fungal infections, including aspergillosis, candidiasis, and mucormycosis, the black fungus that's currently spreading in India due to COVID-19 patients' weakened immne system (“Symptoms of Mucormycosis”). So naturally, we tend to think of fungi as pathogens, particularly in the medical context. But as it turns out, only 300 out of 1.5 million fungal species cause harm to humans – about 0.02% (Higueira, 2017). Therefore, we actually have many more friends in the fungal world than enemies. Fungi are incredibly diverse, and can live up to thousands of years, so it’s no surprise that they have been used in ancient and modern medicine and will likely continue to be an invaluable resource in the future. For my final paper, I would like to explore fungal medicine from the lenses of the past, present, and future.

Historically, fungi have been used extensively in medicine across various cultures, including the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Aztecs. As early as 450 BCE in Greece, the physician Hippocrates classified a type of mushroom, called Amadou mushroom, as an anti-inflammatory and wound cauterization treatment (Stamets and Zwickey, 2014). Across the Mediterranean, moldy bread was prescribed in the Hearst Medical Papyrus as treatment for skin abrasions and contusions in ancient Egypt, with mushrooms considered as “gifts of the gods”, reserved for royalty, and depicted often in hieroglyphics (Abdel-Azeem et al., 2016).On the other side of the globe in the Americas, the Aztec civilization used the “teonanacatl” and “huitlacoche” mushrooms in both religious and medical contexts respectively, being regarded also as a godly and sacred organism (Guzman, 2001). In the more recent past, fungi have been used as anti-cancer drugs, with the most common being Tramates versicolor, which was very popular before the widespread use of Taxol, and of course as antibiotics from the Penicillium genus (Cargill, 2016).

Amadou mushroom (Source)

Egyptian hieroglyphics showing mushrooms (Source)