Fungus found to produce large quantities of natural surfactant

A team of researchers belonging to the Institute of Pharmacy at Friedrich Schiller University Jena has discovered that the fungus Mortierella alpine produces large quantities of surfactants. The fungus, belonging to the zygomycetes family, is present in the soil and shows optimal growth at temperatures between 10 to 15°C. The fungus occurs primarily in the alpine or arctic regions. The fungus has traditionally been employed in large-scale production of polyunsaturated fatty acids like arachidonic acids that are popular as dietary supplements in baby foods. The team’s findings, published in the journal Organic Letters, suggest that the fungus produces a particular group of surface-active peptides known as malpinins.

Florian Baldeweg, a Doctoral candidate in the discipline of Pharmacy and a member of the research team led by Dr. Markus Gressler, identified the compounds produced by the fungus while he was purifying the peptides from Mortierella chromatographically. Baldeweg explains that even tiny amounts of malpinins can result in a head of foam on top of the sample vial. Both the researchers have examined the structure of the previously unknown group of natural surfactants and have concluded that the surfactant effect is even stronger than that of SDS (sodium dodecyl sulfate), which is commonly found in detergents. However, the researchers want to explore the applications of malpinins in the pharmacological sector, instead of using it to develop new cleaning agents, as the surfactants can support the mixture of oil and water. Gressler explains that biological membranes that are mainly made of fatty acids could be made susceptible to pharmaceutical drugs, which could allow pharmaceutical substances to be transferred through cell membranes.

The pair wants to collaborate with their colleagues from the Institute of Pharmacy of Friedrich Schiller University to investigate the malpinins and identify their pharmaceutical potential. The discovery of the naturally occurring surfactants in Mortierella alpine is fascinating because zygomycetes have not been widely known to produce secondary metabolites. Gressler hopes that this situation will change as various studies on the fungus have shown that it can offer many natural products, which includes the significantly small group of malpinins.