Medicinal roles in human society

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Medicinal Mushrooms: A short history

Figure 1. Otzi the Ice Man frozen in a glazier in the Alps.
     Mushrooms have been used as medicine for thousands of years. Although lesser known today as their medicinal herb counterparts, medicinal fungi of all sorts have found their ways into the healerís collection. Over 5,000 years ago, Otzi the Ice Man (figure 1) died high in the Alps between Italy and Austria. With him were two mushrooms from the Polyporaceae family: tinder fungus (Fomes formentarius) and the birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus). It is believed that he was carrying these fungi for their use as antimicrobial properties and for tinder (Stamets).

     The first century Greek physician Dioscorides listed the larch polypore (Fomitopsis officinalis) in his De Materia Medica published in 65 C.E. It was used as a treatment for tuberculosis (Stamets).

     Ergot was used to induce contractions, hastening childbirth, and treating postpartum complications (Ratsch). In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the powerful antibiotic penicillin in the mold fungus Penicillium notatum (figure 2). Today we know that 75% of polypore mushroom species show antrimicrobial activity and 45% of 204 mushroom species surveyed were found to markedly inhibit growth of a variety of microorganisms (Stamets).

Figure 2. Penicillium notatum
     There are around 200 species of mushrooms that have an impact on inhibiting the growth of tumors (Wasser SP, Weis AL). Along with these many fungi are still used as folk medicine for all forms of illness. It would seem that the realm of the fungi is of great importance to us and their role in the ecosystem and our own individual healths must be further studied. The sources of our greatest medicines will not be found in laboratories, but instead growing out of the Earth.

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