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Mushroom researcher David McLaughlin

Mushrooms have more than culinary value. David McLaughlin is working with Medical School faculty to determine mushrooms' potential for preventing cancer.

Mushrooms and medicine

What does deciphering the fungi family tree have to do with cancer? Potentially plenty.

By Mary K. Hoff

Published on November 9, 2004

A gourmet food item that prevents cancer? In a world where it sometimes seems that anything that pleases the palate is automatically bad for you, that may sound too good to be true. But David McLaughlin, professor of plant biology and curator of fungi in the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History, thinks otherwise.

Following leads laid by folk wisdom and science, McLaughlin and Joel Slaton, assistant professor in the Medical School, have teamed up to test whether certain edible mushrooms boost the body's ability to fend off cancer.

The unusual collaboration began just over a year ago, when the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences' new Center for Plants and Human Health put out a call for proposals for projects linking plant biologists and medical researchers. McLaughlin suggested a study exploring claims that porcini, a mushroom found throughout much of the northern hemisphere, has anticancer effects. Staff at the center helped him connect with Slaton, who was already studying the anticancer attributes of another type of mushroom known as reishi.

Slaton agreed to test samples of porcini to see if they affect the growth of cancer cells in culture. McLaughlin, for his part, is working to clarify porcini's phylogeny--its evolutionary history--to help enhance the usefulness of Slaton's efforts.

A key player in this work is Bryn Dentinger, a graduate student in McLaughlin's lab. Dentinger became a fungus fanatic as a teen when his mother handed him a field guide one day and challenged him to identify the mushrooms growing in his yard. Now he's applying that fascination to help clarify relationships among porcini specimens.

"We talk about porcini as though it's one mushroom, when it's really about 30 species," Dentinger says. By collecting a variety of samples and sequencing key genes in each, he hopes to create a picture of the degree of relationship among them. The information he gathers will help Slaton and McLaughlin design their studies in a way that maximizes the reliability and usefulness of the results. It will also help the researchers figure out which types of porcini are most likely to have anticancer activity.

Dentinger's work is part of a National Science Foundation-funded effort by McLaughlin and mycologists at several other universities to clarify the phylogeny of all known fungi. That project, in turn, is part of a larger NSF undertaking called Assembling the Tree of Life, which aims to clarify relationships among all living things.

The mycological studies should be helpful in another effort by McLaughlin and Slaton to identify anticancer activity of shiitake mushrooms.

From the original story in Bio, fall 2004, a publication of the College of Biological Sciences.