News - February 26, 2016

What was Iceman Ötzi doing with those fungi?

Rob Ramaker

Ever since the discovery of Ötzi, scientists have been wondering why this early man was carrying birch polypore. Leo van Griensven, a visiting scientist at Plant Research International, says it may have something to do with the fact that birch polypore inhibits bacterial growth. He has published on this subject in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms.

Photo credit / Contemporary example of a birch polypore

Ötzi, who was discovered in the Alps in 1991, may have been dead for 5300 years but he is still keeping scientists busy. Only last year, scientists revealed the possible function of his 61 (!) tattoos. They had already investigated Ötzi’s final meal, his shoes, the wear and tear on his bones, his tools, his clothes and the cause of death.

However, Ötzi’s most striking belongings were a handful of fungi. His bag, for instance, contained fungi crumbs that were probably used to light a fire. But he also had birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) hanging from his kit on a leather strap. Scientists have been speculating about the purpose of these fungi since the 1990s. The birch polypore, which is also found in the Netherlands, is edible but not that tasty. A medicinal function therefore seems more likely.

Van Griensven worked with several Serbian colleagues to investigate the birch polypore’s properties in the laboratory. Extracts from the mushroom turned out to have an antioxidant effect and also inhibit the growth of bacteria. ‘But we lack really hard evidence,’ says Van Griensven. ‘For that, you need a large trial with animals and a placebo as a control.’ He hopes he will be able to conduct such a trial in the future.

Van Griensven sees fungi as a possible replacement or supplement to antibiotics. ‘There is a huge need for this in society.’

Ötzi the iceman in brief:

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