Mushroom produces drugs from crab shells

Genetically modified mold uses chitin as a raw material

From the chitin shell of crustaceans, Trichoderma mushrooms can produce important chemicals for drug production. © TU Vienna / CC-by-sa 3.0
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Molds are usually no reason to be happy - but now they can be used as chemical factories: At the Vienna University of Technology succeeded in introducing genes of bacteria into fungi of the genus Trichoderma. As a result, the fungi are now able to produce important chemicals for drug production. The raw material, which the mushrooms need for it, is abundant: Chitin, from which for example the tanks of crustaceans are built up. The new method has already been applied for a patent.

Fifty times more expensive than gold

In the case of viral infections such as influenza, antivirals are frequently used to prevent the spread of the virus in the organism. These drugs are often derivatives of N-acetylneuraminic acid (NANA for short), which are today extracted from natural resources or chemically produced - but NANA is fifty times more expensive than gold: the chemical costs about 2000 euros per gram.

A research team from the Vienna University of Technology headed by biotechnologist Astrid Mach-Aigner set out to find a new environmentally friendly manufacturing method for NANA, and this goal has now been achieved. Crucial to their success was the extensive knowledge of the genetics of Trichoderma mushrooms, which had been collected for years at the Institute of Process Engineering, Environmental Technology and Technical Biosciences of the Vienna University of Technology.

Bacterial genes for the mold

The fungus Trichoderma is widespread: it occurs in soils, forests and meadows. "We knew that Trichoderma can break down chitin - that's exactly what the fungus does in the soil with chitin, " explains Astrid Mach-Aigner. This made Trichoderma a promising candidate for the research project. However, to get the fungus to produce the desired chemical end product, one had to incorporate genes that are found in bacteria. "Normally, Trichoderma breaks down chitin into monomeric aminosugars, " says Mach-Aigner. The new genes now lead to two further chemical reaction steps - and the result is the desired pharmaceutical raw material N-acetylneuraminic acid.

Chitin as organic raw material

Chitin is the second most popular biopolymer on earth after cellulose. He comes in tanks of crabs and insects, but also in snails and cephalopods and in the cell wall of mushrooms. It is estimated that ten billion tons of chitin are produced annually in the sea alone several hundred times more than the body weight of all mankind. Chitin is therefore a sustainable renewable raw material for chemical synthesis processes. display

The newly developed Trichoderma strain can now be cultivated in bio-reactors and there convert chitin into the valuable acid. The process has already been patented by the Vienna University of Technology and is now to be used for a cheaper and environmentally friendly production of pharmacological substances on an industrial scale.

(Technical University Vienna, 13.02.2012 - NPO)