Skip to comments.Deadly mushroom chemistry
Posted on 03/17/2013 7:22:25 PM PDT by neverdem
Can you tell the difference between a tasty paddy straw mushroom and a toxic death cap? Emma Shiells talks to the experts about the potentially deadly chemistry hidden in those gills
Death cap mushrooms are, as the name suggests, deadly © Science Photo Library
On a damp and drizzly autumnal morning you may think there are better places to be than foraging in the undergrowth of an orchard, but amateur mushroom hunters are sure to disagree with you. Martin Newcombe, an ecologist and fungi enthusiast, is one of those hooked.
The fact that fungi can grow so quickly makes them fascinating, says Newcombe; they typically grow in two to three days depending on the environmental parameters. For some species like the stinkhorn they can take just a matter of hours, he says. The fungal kingdom consists of a wide range of organisms that differ in their size, shape and colour, and in their means of reproduction and spore distribution. You could hold up two mushrooms that are identical to the naked eye, but on closer inspection find that they are two different species entirely one edible, the other poisonous. It is only when you take a closer look at the spores using a microscope that you can identify the species accurately. The spores are uniquely coloured, patterned and sculpted for each species, where some of them also undergo specific chemical reactions as well, explains Newcombe. In the field there is often a limit to what you can do in terms of identification, as sometimes you can only recognise the genus until further tests can be carried out back in the lab. Only once youve looked at the spores in more detail and carried out some chemical tests, can you truly identify the species and determine its edibility, he adds.
No one really knows what mushroom colours are for, as they are not necessarily warnings. Contrary to popular belief, not all poisonous toadstools are bright red with white spots or warn you by their lurid yellow and green colours. Often poisonous mushrooms look like the edible varieties you might buy in a shop and therein lies the danger for the inexperienced forager.
Death cap is still the commonest cause of [mushroom] poisoning in Europe says Newcombe. A notorious fungus, it is part of the Amanita genus that contains around 600 species, some of which are the most highly toxic in the world. It is believed that this genus alone is responsible for approximately 95% of all mushroom poisonings, with 75% of fatal fungal poisonings attributed to death caps (Amanita phalloides) and the related destroying angel (A. virosa).1
The destroying angel is, you guessed it, also deadly © Science Photo Library
The toxicity of the Amanita species is due to the presence of two groups of toxins known as amatoxins and phallotoxins, both multicyclic peptides. It is believed that the death cap contains six related phallotoxins and five or more amatoxins.2 Geoffrey Kibby, a research associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the UK says that death cap smells like gone-off, sickly sweet honey and they apparently taste really good. But you only need one cap to kill an adult; they are pretty nasty things to eat.
After someone has eaten the deadly mushrooms, theres usually a delay between six to 30 hours from ingestion before the symptoms start to present themselves, explains Kibby. Typically the person will experience food poisoning-type symptoms: severe abdominal pain, sickness and diarrhea, briefly followed by a day or so of apparent recovery, he says. However, the patient will then relapse and deteriorate quite rapidly due to severe renal and liver failure often leading to death.
The less-harmful phallotoxins are responsible for the initial gastrointestinal symptoms, but it is the amatoxins that cause the most damage internally. In particular, α-amanitin has a high specificity for RNA polymerase II in the liver. By inhibiting this enzyme it prevents the formation of mRNA and stops protein synthesis, resulting in cell death and subsequent liver failure. When filtered through the kidneys, the toxin can then be reabsorbed into the bloodstream and re-circulated around the body, causing repeated liver and kidney damage.3
The amatoxin alpha-amanitin is responsible for death caps' deadliness
The death rate has certainly decreased over the years, thanks to the advances in treatments, according to Kibby. In the US, they have more cases than we do [in the UK], so theyve had more opportunity to try different treatments. Standard treatments usually involve large doses of penicillin and vitamin C, as well as keeping the liver and kidneys going, he says. Blood can be filtered using carbon-column haemodialysis units or attempting organ transplants in severe cases. The latest chemical they are trialing is called Silibilin, which seems to have very effective results, says Kibby. Research shows that the drug works by preventing the uptake of the amatoxins by the liver cells and thereby protecting undamaged liver tissue. It also stimulates DNA-dependent RNA polymerases, resulting in an increase in RNA synthesis.4
But treatment is not always successful and it very much depends on how quickly people are diagnosed after ingestion. Victims who are hospitalised and given treatment almost immediately after ingestion have a mortality rate of around 10%, whereas those admitted 60 hours or more after ingestion have a 5090% mortality rate.5 In spite of years of detailed research into its toxins, death cap is still the most deadly fungus known, and theres still no known antidote for humans.
Almost all poisoning cases that Kibby has been involved in have been due to misidentification, where immigrants have picked what they thought they recognised from their native country, or based on knowledge passed down from older generations. Recently, Australian news channels reported a case where four people in Canberra accidently poisoned themselves after consuming death cap at a New Years Eve party. Two of them later died. They were of Asian descent, and it is believed that they may have mistaken the death caps for edible paddy straw mushrooms (Volvariella volvacea) a common ingredient used in Asian cuisines.
Paddy straw mushrooms are edible... © Geoffrey Kibby
Brett Summerell, a fungi expert from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia, told ABC News shortly after the deaths that mushrooms that are poisonous in Australia have very close relatives to those that are quite safe to eat and have a very similar appearance to the straw mushroom. Newcombe agrees: Theyve come from a culture where mushrooms like that are eaten and so probably thought they recognized them, rather than identified them.
Since these deaths, the Australian government and the Australian National Botanical Gardens have released a factsheet on death caps.6 It provides detailed descriptions and photographs, as well as possible locations in southern Australia and what symptoms to expect. They emphasise the importance of not confusing death caps with the edible straw mushrooms that are grown and eaten in Asia. Even though the straw mushrooms are not native to Australia, a related species V. speciosa is and looks very similar to straw mushrooms. They have even been found to grow side-by-side with the death caps in some areas of Australia. Each species in the Volvariella genus has a volva at the base of the steam and gills that do not reach the stem just like the death cap. As the guidebook3 says, great care should be taken in identification to avoid confusion with the deadly white-spored Amanitas.
...but they closely resemble V. speciosa (right), which can grow next to death caps (left) © Heino Lepp/Australian National Botanical Gardens
The greenish form of death cap does look like the paddy straw mushroom, says Kibby. Even the bulbous bag at the base of the stem can be present on the paddy straw mushroom so that wouldnt have alerted them initially. The only way to tell them apart is by looking at their spores, according to Kibby: The paddy straw mushrooms have pink spores whereas the death cap have white spores. There are also chemical tests that can be carried out: adding sulfuric acid to the mushrooms stem or gills will turn black if it is a death cap. The Meixner test uses concentrated hydrochloric acid and newspaper to determine the presence of the deadly toxin α-amanitin.7
As an experienced mycologist, Kibby is often called upon to help with mushroom poisonings via the National Poisons Information Service (NPIS), which is a clinical toxicology service available for healthcare professionals in the UK. In 2011, the NPIS saw 257 poisoning cases linked to eating mushrooms in the UK, but without any deaths in over four years. That was until last year, when Kibbys expertise was urgently needed as a married couple were hospitalised after eating mushrooms suspected to be death caps. They [NPIS] got the son to go down to the bottom of the garden and photograph the mushrooms for me, they also packaged some up and sent them to me in London that same afternoon, explains Kibby. As soon as I opened the package I could smell that gone-off honey smell that is so typical for A. phalloides [death cap].
Sadly the woman died from multiple organ failure, but her husband survived having only consumed a very small amount of the fungi. She was doubly unlucky, as it was the end of the year so they shouldnt have been there in the first place, and they were albino in colour; the least typical colour form [for death caps], says Kibby. Apparently, she had identified them as edible mushrooms using a field guide, he adds.
Unfortunately, even non-poisonous fungi can be pretty bad for you, because they are very good at recycling. They are non-photosynthetic organisms, gaining energy and nutrients for their biosynthetic pathways through the degradation of other plants and matter, which means they can easily absorb trace elements from their local environment.
Fungi collected near former smelters, landfill sites and land treated with sewage sludge can accumulate significant quantities of metal ions, such as cadmium, mercury, lead, copper and chromium. Even worse, high levels of radioactive caesium-137 isotope have been found in mushrooms. It was only a few years ago that the British government stopped monitoring toadstools generally from the fallout at Chernobyl, says Newcombe. Kibby believes that there are still some areas of far eastern Scandinavia where picking mushrooms is not advisable, due to the radiation found in them.
Newcombe once harvested mushrooms growing near a disused factory that was an old iron smelter. You could taste the iron in them, he says. I sent samples off to be tested and, sure enough, there was more iron in them than there should have been. And mushrooms that grow near roadside edges can absorb lead from passing vehicles. The mushrooms themselves might be edible, but once they have absorbed metals from their surrounding environment they can become poisonous due to the high concentration of heavy metals found inside them.
In the UK, collecting mushrooms is more of an occasional pastime, whereas in other cultures people pick them for everyday consumption. In mainland Europe, pharmacists can be asked to help identify them. Problems arise when people try to identify edible mushrooms using only a guidebook. If you want to eat wild mushrooms, youve got to go on organized forays with someone that knows what they are doing, says Kibby. No matter how good the field guide is, it cant possibly cover all colour variations and eventualities. It seems silly to risk your life when you can go to your local deli and buy exotic mushrooms there, he says.
Kibby says that, contrary to what you might expect, most poisonings happen not from picking really weird-looking mushroom, but from the most normal looking ones, such as paddy straw mushrooms. If only people would stick to really weird and wonderful mushrooms like some Boletus, he says. Then you cant go wrong as you cant mistake them for anything else.
Caesar's mushroom is an edible Amanita variety © Francesco Carta/Alamy
Not all mushrooms from the Amanita genus are bad for your health; some of its species are edible, like the glorious Amanita caesarea with its orange cap and yellow stem and gills. Known in English as Caesars mushroom, it has been prized since Roman times and is not easily confused with other Amanita species, thanks to its vibrant colouring. It has yet to be found in the UK, but grows in warmer climates like southern Europe and North Africa. It was said to be a favorite of the Roman emperor Claudius and has been found growing along old Roman roads. Many ancient historians believe that Claudius died from mushroom poisoning, murdered by his own wife Agrippina in 54 AD. It has been widely speculated that death caps were used as the poison, but it is now considered to be unlikely given the short timeframe reported between him getting sick and dying.8
Kibby has tried some edible Amanitas, but even then my heart was in my mouth, he adds. He has eaten A. rubescens, which although edible after cooking, are poisonous if eaten raw. It did taste delicious although I couldnt help but watch for symptoms over the next few hours, he says.
1 J R Hanson, The chemistry of fungi, RSC Publishing, Cambridge, 2008
2 G Kibby, Guide to mushrooms of Britain and Europe, Octopus Publishing, 2006
3 R Phillip, Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe, Pan, London, 1981
4 K Hruby, G. Csomos, M Fuhrmann and H Thaler, Human Toxicology 1983, 2, 183 (DOI: 10.1177/096032718300200203)
5 The Bad Bug Book, US Food and Drug Administration, 2nd edn, 2012, p200 http://1.usa.gov/XO6DF6
6 Australian National Botanical Gardens http://bit.ly/10gSeRl
7 M Beuhler, DC Lee and R Gerkin, Ann. Emerg. Med., 2004, 44, 114 (DOI: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2004.03.017)
8 V J Marmion and T E J Wiedemann, J. R. Soc. Med., 2002, 95, 260 (DOI: 10.1258/jrsm.95.5.260)
Stay away from the one with white ring on the stem :O
Supposedly, the toxic varieties turn purple in a short time when the caps are freshly broken.
I haven’t dared eat a gilled mushroom yet (other than from the store.) Puffballs, some boletes, chanterelles, okay. Gilled mushrooms, too iffy. And there were some lovely blewits a few years back but I didn’t dare. It’s funny how long many years go by between fruiting bodies - I assume chicken fat suillus mycelium is still growing under my pines, but last saw them thirteen years ago. So who knows how long for the blewits to come back?
My lab died from eating mushrooms. She did it one year before and I was able to make her throw them up. I knew immediately what she had done. Outside to do her stuff and back inside with excessive salivation. She was almost 16 years old. The 1 year old lab survived easily. Sad.
For Heavens sake why in the world would anyone want to go eating a fungus? Fungus is toxic, filthy, mouldering decay. YUCK!
Oh, Gus, the gardener’s gone now
And you went with him too.
The fungus here reminds me of
The fun Gus is having with you.
-Benny Hill (My Garden of Love)
Mrs Spokeshave saved a goat with Burdock Thistle root and Milk Thistle seeds ground up and administered with water using a coke bottle and the thumb from a rubber glove as a teat.
Psychoactive (magic) mushrooms have that property too but some are only damaging if you eat more than a kilo.
If you are crazy enough to go picking, I recommend trying no more than 1 gram of any unknown mushrooms the first time. Maybe 5 grams the next day if you didn’t feel sick. Otherwise you might be in for death. Or a free trip to the moon.
Notice the wife in one of the stories ate some she picked and died. While the husband survived after only eating a small amount.
How about deadly mushroom physics?
Y’know what, you are right, the purple indication was for psychoactive ones...not necessarily the toxic ones.
Agreed, you’d have to be nuts to pick your own, especially considering the amount you’d use in a typical food application. (a FOOD application?) Geez, I better get off the ‘puter & go to bed.
So do many highly prized edible mushrooms like the boletes. But I don't think the Destroying Angel (closely related to the death cap and just as deadly) bruises purple at all.
Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa)
Death Cap (Amanita phalliodes)
Never ever eat any mushroom that you have not positively identified. Eating even 1 gram of either the Destroying Angel or the Death Cap will be enough to destroy your liver and kidneys and the onset of symptoms might take two or three days to occur.
Anyone picking white puff balls to cook should always cut them open and look to see if they are actually young amanitas that have yet to develop. You will be able to see the stem and gil cap if it is. Don't eat them!
Chantarells are choice and easy to identify. Used to grow in my backyard under a shingle oak tree. They had a smell that was slightly spicy, at the same time like apricot. Also, if you find a chantarell with gills, its not a chantarell!
Anyone who experiments with mushrooms should be aware that Milk Thistle contains silmarain, which helps protect against amanita poisoning. Keep some on hand. Best protection though, is to avoid eating them in the first place.
Even supposedly “safe” mushrooms occasionally come up toxic. One or two “experienced” mushroom hunters die every year from consumption of a “safe” mushroom. And, although there are differences, sometimes toxic and safe mushrooms are so closely similar that even experienced hunters get it wrong. Once you stray away from the really well-known species, mushroom hunting has a small but significant amount of uncertainty.
I have an old copy of The Joy of Cooking, and in it, there’s a quote: “There are old mushroom hunters, and bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.”
I think I’ll stick to hunting in the produce section....
Fungi collected near former smelters, landfill sites and land treated with sewage sludge can accumulate significant quantities of metal ions, such as cadmium, mercury, lead, copper and chromium. Even worse, high levels of radioactive caesium-137 isotope have been found in mushrooms.
Yuck... makes a person want to rethink eating the things...
When asked how they tasted, each person said: "Delicious. Just like regular mushrooms."
A long time ago I read a survival guide, which had advice on safe foliage to eat. They said: stay away from mushrooms. They have virtually no nutritional value, and unless you're an expert, it's not worth taking such a risk.
Ref: Clint Eastwood in "The Beguiled".
You have it backwards!
Chantarelles have gills!
LOL! I sure miss Benny Hill. The poor guy basically got run off the BBC. Broke his heart.
I just go for morels in the Spring.
My dad grew up on a farm in Poland. Whenever we went camping, he would go foraging for mushrooms. He never got sick. Scared the hell out of all of us.
Morels......no better mushroom.
Where do you live?
“Never ever eat any mushroom that you have not positively identified. Eating even 1 gram of either the Destroying Angel or the Death Cap will be enough to destroy your liver and kidneys and the onset of symptoms might take two or three days to occur.”
Wow. Are you sure you don’t mean 1 ounce (28 grams)?
But yes, nobody should eat mushrooms if not 100% sure. That’s why I said “crazy”
A Jack o' lantern mushroom has gills.
Between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio.
According to this link, they don’t actually glow in the dark as advertised either.
I’ve gathered chanterelles for years and have never found anything that was bad, when I first began I gathered some that looked just like chanterelles, and fortunately a cousin from the woods looked over my ‘catch’ and threw them out.
I don’t know what they were, but they had a spongiform underside much like the Bolete. Otherwise, they looked just like a chanterelle.
From what I know about the Jack O’Lantern - it grows out of tree stumps and in rotting wood, while Chanterelles do not. They do not grow in my region (Central Europe).
There is also the “False Chanterelle” which can cause stomach upset, although some regard it as edible.
Here is an interesting mushroom story from a famous mycologist.
It’s a clip from a great documentary film, “Know Your Mushrooms”. Worth looking for!!!
There is a French doctor who cured himself three times when he deliberately ate the deadliest mushroom known.
That is the cure, I was unable to find an article about the French doctor who deliberately ate deadly poisonous mushrooms on three occasions and then cured himself.
I read the original article in a non-English book on the subject.
His name was Dr. Bastien.
The Bastien Treatment.
A French physician, Dr. P. Bastien, has developed a new treatment for Amanita poisoning. It has three parts:
(1) intravenous injections of 1 gram vitamin C twice a day;
(2) two capsules of nifuroxazide three times a day;
(3) two tablets of dihydrostreptomycin three times a day.
The treatment is supplemented by measures to control fluid and electrolyte balance, and by penicillin.
Bastien successfully treated 15 cases of A. phalloides poisoning between 1957 and 1969. In 1974 he ate 65 grams of A. phalloides and survived. In 1981 he ate 70 grams of A. phalloides and again successfully treated himself. It is reported that the Bastien treatment is now used throughout France, where it saves the lives of all those whose treatment has not been delayed until massive liver and kidney damage has occurred. This method should obviously be widely publicized and tested in North America.
ping - see my previous post - though it might interest you.
Benny Hill’s “El Cheapo Films” is his ultimate classic, IMO.
My husband has just planted 100 hazelnut trees and their roots have been infused with truffle spores. In about 3 years we will be interested in finding a good truffle dog...... or a truffle pig. :)
Interesting that he would use antibiotics since they are metabolized and excreted by the liver and kidneys, which are already being damaged by the mushroom toxins - I would think he would more likely build up toxic levels of the antibiotics!
Apparently the treatment must be started before the second critical stage sets in, and many people might be more embarrassed than frightened by the first stage - I am so stupid, and I have diarrhea, they think. Oh good, I’m feeling better, well, I’ll stay away from THAT mushroom in the future.
As a youngster living in northern Michigan, my grandfather used to take me out mushroom hunting in the spring.....
It can be a decent area, but so much depends on the weather, which can be screwy! Last spring was terrible . Last winter, the fallen leaves didn’t get enough moisture to compress. So in the Spring, there was a very think fallen leaf bed. Nothing poked through! Couldn’t find ‘em!
The thing is a fungus, it’s decaying plant matter. Why eat a food that is in effect a natural poison?
“Hills Angles’’ GRRROWL!! The BBC did a number on the guy. Political correctness run amok basically just tossed him off the air. Broke his heart.
I don't know how much chance you want to take with something that irreversibly destroys the liver and kidneys.
All boletes stain blue if you bruise them. I have never heard of any poisonous boletes either.
Morels are not a poisonous mushroom........Sorry I didn't clarify that.
Boletus Satanas (AKA - "The Devil's Bolete") is one of the most common poisonous mushrooms in my part of Europe.
Morels contain small amounts of hydrazine toxins that are removed by thorough cooking; morel mushrooms should never be eaten raw.
It has been reported that even cooked morels can sometimes cause mild intoxication symptoms when consumed with alcohol.
When eating this mushroom for the first time it is wise to consume a small amount to minimize any allergic reaction. Morels for consumption must be clean and free of decay.
Morels growing in old apple orchards that had been treated with the insecticide lead arsenate may accumulate levels of toxic lead and arsenic that are unhealthy for human consumption.
Boletus Satanas (AKA - "The Devil's Bolete") don't always look so scary, they can even look very much like the much sought after Cep.
Read about it on wikipedia:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boletus_satanas
Red-mouth Bolete (Boletus subvelutipes)
Looks like there isn't much danger of The Devil's Bolete being eaten.
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