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Before the experts were rushing to find treatments and testing for the coronavirus, some were busy trying to find ways to detect mushroom poison. Earlier this year, a team at the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a simple, portable test that could detect the deadly poison in minutes. But fungus enthusiasts say the test is no substitute for actual knowledge of the fungi. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED reports.
CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: In a parking lot near some woods about an hour east of San Francisco, USDA microbiologist Candace Bever rummages around in a box containing plastic containers, slides and tubes.
CANDACE BEVER: I'm going to grab a vial here and my saline solution.
VELTMAN: We've just picked an assortment of mushrooms on a hike. One of them, a paddy straw mushroom, looks suspiciously like a specimen she's brought along with her - amanita phalloides, also known as the death cap.
BEVER: All you need is a rice-size piece of the mushroom.
VELTMAN: Bever is demonstrating her new test for a dangerous poison known as amatoxin that's found in some increasingly common fungi. She puts samples of the death cap and the paddy straw in a pair of vials filled with saline solution and dabs a few drops of each liquid onto the ends of two white plastic strips.
BEVER: And we wait.
VELTMAN: It looks a lot like a pregnancy test. After a few minutes, two pink lines emerge in the window of the paddy straw test strip. That's a negative result. But only one line forms in the window of the other strip, the one with the amanita phalloides sample, the death cap.
BEVER: So that is a positive for amatoxins.
VELTMAN: The death cap is one of the most poisonous mushrooms around. Ingesting a mere mouthful can cause symptoms ranging from severe diarrhea and vomiting to liver collapse and even death. Bever says fatalities are currently rare, but that might change because amanita phalloides is an invasive species.
BEVER: Its range continues to spread.
VELTMAN: Mushroom expert Debbie Viess says it's hard for the average person to distinguish between the harmful death cap, which has white gills and spores and a skirt, and benign lookalikes such as the paddy straw.
DEBBIE VIESS: So this could be a death cap, except it has pink gills and spores, and it doesn't have the skirt.
VELTMAN: The new strips also test urine, so Viess says they could help doctors and nurses figure out if amatoxin is the cause of a poisoning and quickly respond to the symptoms.
VIESS: If you can eliminate or confirm it's amatoxin, you can save this person's life.
VELTMAN: Existing methods for detecting amatoxins involve noxious chemicals or require high-end equipment only found in a lab. California Poison Control toxicologist Eddie Garcia says this gives the USDA's new test strips an edge.
EDDIE GARCIA: The ease of use is the real advance here.
VELTMAN: But Garcia says it'll be years before the strips are approved for medical staff to use them on patients in a hospital or doctor's office.
GARCIA: We shouldn't jump to conclusions that this can be used in humans quite yet to detect dangerous poisoning.
VELTMAN: Some mushroom community members have already taken to Facebook to complain about the new test strips, saying they might encourage careless foraging and lead to more deaths. Mushroom expert Debbie Viess says when it comes to safely identifying fungi, there's no substitute for true knowledge.
VIESS: I think it would be foolish to rely on a test rather than your eyes.
VELTMAN: While some fungi enthusiasts might be wary of the strips, they could find a fan base among dog lovers. Mushroom poisoning is a canine hazard. And the new test works on dog urine. Veterinarians are already signing up to try it out ahead of the expected commercial release later this year. For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman.
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