Penicillin-producing fungus, previously thought to be asexual, has a sexual side. The finding is the latest in a kind of sexual revolution in fungal genetics. By turning off the lights, setting up an oatmeal-based bed and slipping some extra vitamins into their food, researchers have persuaded the supposedly asexual mold that makes penicillin to have sex. The fungi's ability to switch it up sexually could help industrial scientists breed more efficient antibiotic-producing strains or even lead to the discovery of new, useful compounds.
Penicillium chrysogenum is the original and still-used source of penicillin. It creates a nitrogen and carbon ring structure called beta-lactam, which prevents bacteria from building cell walls. This antibiotic helps the microscopic fungi kill any bacteria that might try to live where the fungi grows; it is also what doctors have used to combat bacterial illness since the 1940s.
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