Scientists have tweaked a fungus usually breeding on decaying bread or food stuff to create a crucial drug to fight viral infections.
Biotechnologist Astrid Mach-Aigner and his team made a fungus, Trichoderma, to produce NANA (N-Acetylneuraminic acid), a vital source of drugs to fight viral infections.
However, NANA , which can be obtained from natural sources or synthesized has a major drawback. It is horrendously expensive to produce. Each gram of NANA is 50 times as expensive as a gram of gold, selling for around 2000 Euros.
"We knew that Trichoderma can degrade chitin - that is what the fungus naturally does in soil," says Astrid Mach-Aigner, from the Vienna University of Technology.
In order to get the fungus to produce the desired chemical product, bacterial genes had to be introduced into its genome. "Usually, Trichoderma breaks down chitin to monomer amino sugars", says Mach-Aigner, according to a Vienna statement.
After cellulose, chitin is the most abundant biopolymer on earth. It is found in the carapaces of crustaceans, in the shells of insects, snails and cephalopods and in the cell walls of fungi.
It is estimated that in the sea alone, 10 billion tons of chitin are formed every year - several hundred times more than the cumulative body mass of all the people on earth. This makes chitin a very sustainable resource for chemical synthesis.
The newly developed Trichoderma line can now be cultivated in bio-reactors and produces the precious acid NANA from chitin.
The process has now been patented by the Vienna University of Technology and will be used for the cheap and eco-friendly production of pharmaceuticals on an industrial scale in the near future.