Polyozellus is a genus of exceptional looking fungi that have more to offer to humanity and the ecosystems they live in than just appearances. Commonly known as the blue chanterelle, these species are not true chanterelles from the genus Cantharellus. In fact, in 1953, it was placed in a completely different order (Thelephorales) based on spore morphology and the presence of the pigment thelephoric acid. These interesting species have intense pharmacological potential as several studies have shown that the medley of biochemical products they produce can help humans combat the neurological destructive Alzheimer’s disease.
Once simply known as one species, (Polyozellus multiplex) the blue chanterelles are likely several different species with a wide distribution. These fungi are collected mainly on western parts of North America, from Alaska down but have also been collected from Eastern regions like Quebec and Main. Korea, Japan and China also have their own populations of Polyozellus sp. growing in coniferous dominated forests, where it maintains a mutualistic lifestyle. Polyozellus sp. are ectomycorrhizal, pairing well with spruce and fir, but can also be found under hemlock and aspen too. They tend to favors the conditions present in higher elevation alpine regions and fruit in the summer and fall. By locating and delivering rare soil nutrients these fungi promote the health of alpine coniferous forests, which are demanding environments to say the least.
Those who consume these mushrooms not only receive a tasty forest floor morsel, but a diversity of chemical compounds that can enhance neurological health. Several studies over the past 30 or so years have looked more closely into the chemistry of these peculiar fungi. In 1997, Hwang et al. isolated and purified a novel compound from the fungus, aptly named polyozellin. These researchers found that polyozellin can inhibit PEP, (prolyl endopeptidase) an enzyme that breaks down proline-containing neuropeptides and TRHs (thyrotropin-releasing hormones). Both proline-containing neuropeptides and TRHs are known to be important biochemicals that play imperative roles in learning and memory. PEP is naturally synthesized in the human body so certain individuals with a high expression of genes involved with PEP synthesis are at more risk to developing Alzheimer’s disease. Polyozellin can thereby be used as a preventative measure in individuals that produce elevated levels of PEP, or as a means to slow down the symptoms of patients already diagnosed with the disease.
I love diving head first into the information about a species or genus I didn’t even know existed. So many times, I follow this trend down the mycological rabbit hole: First, its appearance drew me in. Then, I learned about its ecological function in alpine coniferous forests. Finally, I uncovered the pharmacological potential these forest floor inhabitants possess. There is an absolutely insane amount of fungi out there, and as always, we are only scratching the surface at comprehending their ecological and medical potential.