Max Gomes (IOC/Fiocruz)
Late 1922. Scientist Olympio da Fonseca Filho returned to Brazil after specializing in mycology [the study of fungi] in the United States. With him, a collection of more than 800 specimens of these organisms that would give rise to the current Collection of Cultures of Filamentous Fungi (CCFF) of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute (IOC/Fiocruz).
IOC/Fiocruz Fungi Collection houses historical samples and maintains centennial specimens preserved in their original technique (photo: Gutemberg Brito)
In the last days of 2022, in the celebration of its centenary, the CCFF kept alive not only thousands of samples maintained in the cabinets of the Rocha Lima Pavilion, in the Manguinhos-Maré campus of Fiocruz (RJ). It also kept the innovative vision to find, in the fungi, the most different forms of contribution to society.
“It all started when Carlos Chagas – then director of the IOC – sent Olympio da Fonseca to study mycology abroad. The young doctor returned to the country not only in the possession of new knowledge, but also with a vast collection that, over the course of 100 years, has been maintained by curators who adapted its use over time according to the current needs of the scientific community”, says Áurea Maria Lage de Moraes, current curator of the Collection and head of the Laboratory of Taxonomy, Biochemistry and Bioprospecting of Fungi of the IOC/Fiocruz.
In a constant process of maintenance and renewal, the Collection preserves hundreds of species of filamentous fungi, with their original bio morphological and genetic characteristics, maintained using sterile mineral oil, lyophilization and cryopreservation techniques – depending on the needs of each organism.
“Here, we have a testimony of the scientific phases of the institution and the country. We are able to see the changes in the topics of interest that prevailed at different times through the deposits of the samples, and we can also see the technological evolution through the conservation methods”, emphasizes Aurea.
The strains deposited at the CCFF come from the soil, air, plant, animal and human material, and they have varied geographic representation, with a predominance of South America. According to the curator, this diversity reflects the expansion in the concepts of mycology.
“The first specimens collected by Olympio da Fonseca came from food, which was also the specialty of Charles Thom, with whom Olympio specialized in mycology. Then, the Collection underwent a period in which the deposit of clinical samples predominated. More recently, the deposits began to come from different sources”, she describes.
Aurea (left) and Simone observe the original specimen of the fungus 'Penicillium notatum' used by Alexander Fleming (photo: Ricardo Schmidt)
History that is worth gold
Among the specimens deposited in the Collection is the historic original strain of the fungus Penicillium notatum, donated by the Butantan Institute and used by Alexander Fleming in the discovery of penicillin. Also part of the collection are the materials used by the American scientist Charles Thom to write the book The Penicillium, of 1930, in which there are several references to the CCFF. “In addition to these more historic strains, we have exemplaries of biomes that no longer exist. These fungi can help researchers better understand what certain regions were like”, says Simone Quinelato Bezerra, assistant curator of the Collection.
The diversity of living organisms under the care of the CCFF has served as the basis for the creation of other collections, such as the collection of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of São Paulo and the Bacteriological Institute of the Department of Hygiene of Buenos Aires.
A service that spans generations
The supply of biological materials and their associated information was also useful for the reconstitution of the mycotheque at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, affected by the lack of professionals during the world war one, and the expansion of the Collection of the Bureau of Chemistry of the United States Department of Agriculture. “The supply of biological material is a service that we provide to this day, now institutionalized”, comments Simone.
Other services that are part of CCFF's routine are taxonomic characterization, isolation, identification and authentication of fungi, technical-scientific advice, provision of procedures, consulting, and training of human resources. “The Collection is not just a place to deposit specimens. Here, we work with the different potentials of our biological material in the fields of science, education, management and, more recently, in projects related to biotechnology. Here, we produce science”, states Simone.
The Collection is also involved in inter-institutional collaborations. The CCFF assesses the presence of fungi in historical objects (such as paintings, sculptures and books) and the possibility of air contamination. “We have partnerships with organizations, museums, libraries and universities. One of the main examples is the National Archives, which often comes to us to maintain good air quality, essential for storing papers,” recalls Aurea.
In the area of engineering for sustainability, CCFF has cooperated with the Center for Education and Research of Materials and Technologies with Low Environmental Impact in Sustainable Construction at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Numast/Poli/Coppe/UFRJ).
Fungi from the Collection cultivated in Petri dishes (photo: Gutemberg Brito)
The contemporary perspective to harness the potential of fungi takes CCFF's path to a new stage. According to the curators, the new step for the Collection is adapting to the format of a Biological Resource Center (CRB) – service providers with collections of cultivable and authenticated biological material, with a database with molecular, physiological and structural information. To this end, the space that currently houses the Collection will undergo renovations on its infrastructure.
The villains or good guys?
Fungi are part of a group so broad and unique that they have their own classification among the five kingdoms of biology: The Kingdom Fungi. But fungi were once classified along with plants. “Until the late 1960s, they were defined as part of the Kingdom Plantae. However, they are organisms with their own characteristics. They are not animals or plants”, points out the curator.
Despite being more remembered as toxic species, fungi are part of the everyday life of humans, generally in a beneficial way. “Not too long ago, when people talked about fungus in scientific publications, it was due to skin diseases, mycoses and allergies caused by some species. There was almost no dissemination of information about the fact that they are also widely used in the food, pharmaceutical and textile industries, for example”, emphasizes Aurea.
“At the science and technology fairs that the CCFF participates in, we promote playful moments with the public and show that, depending on the species, a fungus can either be considered a ‘villain’ or a ‘good guy’”, adds Simone.
In the “good guy” version, they are present in food, in their macroscopic form as mushrooms (shiitake, shimeji and champignons, for example), and in the microscopic form as yeast, used to make bread and pizza, and citric acid, in soft drinks. Some species of fungi are also used in the production of metabolites that are used in the stylization of jeans fabric, for color fading.
On the “villain” side, there is the amanita mushroom which, due to its toxicity, is represented in pop culture often in games and cartoons. There are also fungi that cause diseases, such as sporotrichosis. Endemic in the State of Rio de Janeiro, it is caused by species of the genus Sporothrix.
However, the researchers point out that, despite being responsible for other infections, fungi are constantly overlooked in clinical diagnoses. “The diagnosis of fungal diseases remains difficult. There are several infections caused by these organisms that, due to the initial difficulty in their identification, physicians usually first investigate the presence of other etiological agents. This period of time can be crucial in aggravating the situation”, emphasizes Aurea.
“Fungi are opportunistic and some syndromes, such as AIDS or COVID-19, weaken the patient's immune system, making them susceptible to opportunistic infections that can even lead to death”, concludes Simone. Recently, an article led by the IOC/Fiocruz reported the first report of meningoencephalitis, in Brazil, caused by the fungus Penicillium chrysogenum. The microorganism caused severe infection in the brain and meninges of a patient in the City of Rio de Janeiro, leading to her death.