Scientists May Have Found an Antidote to the Death Cap Mushroom

Mushrooms are fascinating. They might taste like chicken, expand your mental horizons, or melt your insides, and there’s very little middle ground. Firmly in the latter camp is the death cap — a widespread but unassuming little fungus responsible for 90% of mushroom-related deaths worldwide.

That’s why it’s such a relief that a team of scientists may have finally found an antidote.

To grasp how the antidote works, it’s necessary to understand a little about the death cap. The mushroom originated in Europe, where it developed a symbiotic relationship with several types of hardwoods. As humans transported those trees to North and South America, Australia, and Asia for horticultural purposes, the death cap hitched a ride.

Looks good enough to eat, but isn’t

In bad news for mycophiles worldwide, the death cap resembles several types of edible mushrooms — especially some varieties popular in Asian cuisine, according to The Guardian.  Even worse, its primary toxin remains quite capable of shutting down your liver and kidneys even after you cook it. People who have eaten death caps and survived claim they are delicious.

two mushrooms

The line between a delicious meal and liver failure is perilously thin. This image is for illustration purposes, don’t treat it as a mushroom guide, we beg of you. Photo: Shutterstock


“The most fatal component of the death cap is α-amanitin,” a team of scientists at Sun Yat-sen University wrote in a study published in Nature Communications. “Despite its lethal effect, the exact mechanisms of how α-amanitin poisons humans remain unclear.”

A modern approach

CRISPR gene-editing technology to the rescue, by way of good old trial and error.

The Sun Yat-sen team used CRISPR to create a group of human cells, each with a different mutation, Nature reported. Then the scientists exposed those cells to α-amanitin to see what happened. The result? Cells lacking an enzyme called STT3B could withstand the death cap’s ferocious toxin. No one knows why.

“We are totally surprised by our findings,” Guohui Wan, an author of the paper, told Nature.

The study didn’t stop there. Next, the scientists set out to identify a compound that could block the action of the STT3B enzyme in cells.

a mushroom

This death cap photo was taken in the Czech Republic. Although the death cap is native to Europe, it has spread worldwide. Photo: Shutterstock


The winner was a dye created by Kodak in the 1950s called indocyanine green. The dye already has widespread use in medical imaging applications, but its use as a possible mushroom antidote was entirely unexpected. And the initial data is promising. In the study, 50 percent of mice treated with indocyanine green within four hours of α-amanitin exposure survived. By contrast, 90 percent of untreated mice died from the toxin.

Some complications

Regarding human testing, the timing described in the above paragraph is the sticking point.

After the initial wave of gastrointestinal pain, nausea, and vomiting, many people poisoned by death caps begin to feel better (the “latent phase“). But the α-amanitin toxin is still in the system, insidiously destroying the liver and kidneys. By the time poisoned people show up at hospitals, it’s often too late to save these vital organs.

Nevertheless, it’s exciting that a mushroom responsible for so much suffering might soon be mastered. And the method by which scientists discovered the possible solution offers applications for other types of toxin/antidote research.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).