Closeup of a multi colored brown Turkey Tail mushroom

Trametes versicolor


Trametes versicolor (turkey tail). The latin word “trametes” translates as “one who is thin,” and “versicolor” as many-colored.[12] It has also been widely known as Coriolus Versicolor and Polyporus versicolor. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is called Yun Zhi (“cloud-like mushroom”) and Kawaratake (“roof tile fungus”) in Japan. The common lay term “turkey tail” refers to its banding pattern of concentric rings of brown and tan which resemble the tail feathers of a turkey. It has also been called many-zoned polypore. There are many other species of trametes, some of which are difficult to distinguish from turkey tail.[27]

Natural History

(Ecology, Where and How it Grows)

Occurring in tropical, subtropical, and temperate zones, trametes versicolor aka turkey tail mushroom is a species commonly found throughout the United States. It propagates throughout North America, Asia, and Europe.[5] 

A polypore fungi, the trametes versicolor propagates via wind-blown haploid spores that land in a beneficial environment become germlings and, if close to another fungi germling, the two will “fuse their hyphae and mix their cell contents in a stage of the life cycle that is called plasmogamy. Each of the cells within each of the original germlings should now contain two different nuclei that are unfused. From there on, “the fungus stays in this dikaryotic state for most of its life.”

Trametes versicolor is a polypore, a member of the Polyporaceae which counts more than 100 genera in its family. Most Polyporaceae members have vertical pores on the underside of their caps, ranging vastly in size, from 10 per millimeter to 2 millimeter per pore! 

The polypores’ typically hard exteriors, atypical “non-mushroom shape” and growth on wood, as wood decomposers help to distinguish them from other fungi.

Turkey tail fungi are commonly found on fallen trees and tree stumps, and serve the role of breaking down wood and “recycling the nutrients and minerals” in the wood and releasing them into the soil over time, sometimes many hundreds of years. Trametes versicolor causes a white rot of wood, as the fungus decays the lignin and leaves the cellulose behind.[33]

At Verdant Leaf we grow our turkey tail on our farm in Hillsboro, Oregon. Our turkey tail mycelium is grown on a substrate of brown rice that is sterilized then inoculated with the trametes versicolor fungus. 

Our turkey tail fruited bodies (for extracts) are grown on a substrate composed of organic oats and saw dust, collected from Epilogue llc, a local lumber mill located near to the Verdant Leaf farm. Epilogue focuses on stewarding urban trees and reclaiming hardwoods which would have otherwise gone to waste. The sawdust from the wood they reclaim is then in turn salvaged by us and used in our growing process. We then add the spent substrate from our fruiting blocks to our compost, which is then used to regenerate the soil on our farm.

Ethnomycology

(The Cultural and Sociological Impact of this Species)

The benefits of turkey tail have been known in Asia for thousands of years. It is included in the Chinese Compendium of Materia Medica by Li Shizhena, a book published more than 3000 years ago, which then refers to the fungi as a folk medicine with a long history of use.[35] In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), they believe that the mushroom helps fight infections and support immune function. During the 15th century, the Chinese drank turkey tail infused tea which was thought to help strengthen their bones and tendons.

Quick Facts

  • Packed with antioxidants
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Has antiviral properties [25]
  • May help clear HPV [11]
  • Enhances efficacy of cancer treatments for the stomach and colon
  •  Reduces fatigue and supports physical activity [16]
  • May improve insulin resistance in type 2 diabetics [38]
  • Contains an array of antioxidants, including phenols and powerful flavonoids quercetin and baicalein [4]
  • Contains “biological response modifiers” (BRMs), also known as immunomodulators, often used in the treatment of autoimmune diseases.[31]

Health Benefits

Gut Health

The naturally-occurring prebiotics PSK and PSP in turkey tail support digestion and help your gut biome thrive. Found in the fruiting body of trametes versicolor, polysaccharides-Krestin (PSK) is a prebiotic, a peptide, polysaccharide, and protein complex. Found in the mycelium, polysaccharopeptide aka polysaccharide peptide (PSP) is also a prebiotic, a peptide, and polysaccharide. The chemical structures of PSP and PSK are similar; the most notable differences being hamnose and arabinose in PSP and fucose in PSK (more on that in the Cancer section below).

For optimal health, our microbiome needs both prebiotics and probiotics. In order for the gut to function well, it needs an array of healthy bacterial enzymes to properly digest foods. These specific strains of healthy bacteria i.e. live organisms (lactobacillus acidophilus, bifidobacterium, saccharomyces, streptococcus, enterococcus, escherichia, and bacillus), are commonly referred to as probiotics. Probiotics are added and replenished through eating an array of healthy foods, especially fermented products (yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, etc.) (Mayo)

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are not live organisms, but as The Mayo Clinic explains, they are “specialized fibers” which “act like fertilizers that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.” Prebiotics are needed to support and maintain the gut’s colonies of probiotics.[26]  

In a research support study published in 2013, turkey tail was shown to increase two strains of healthy bacteria, namely bifidobacterium and lactobacillus, and reduce the well-known pathogens, clostridium and staphylococcus.[40]

In 2014, a randomized clinical trial on the effects of PSP versus the effects of amoxicillin on the gut microbiome was conducted. Twenty-four healthy volunteers were randomized to receive PSP, amoxicillin, or no treatment (control). Among the twenty-two who successfully completed the protocol, PSP was shown to lead to “clear and consistent microbiome changes consistent with its activity as a prebiotic.” While the “antibiotic amoxicillin alters the microbiome” and “caused substantial microbiome changes, most notably an increase in Escherichia/Shigella”… PSP from turkey tail “acts as a prebiotic to modulate human intestinal microbiome composition.” [28]  

While the above research is considerable, we are by no means anywhere near the end. In fact, we’ve only begun to learn why turkey tail supports gut health. In July 2022, Nature published an expanded reference map of the human gut microbiome which revealed literally hundreds of previously unknown species. Science is currently at the frontier of fully understanding the gut and its significant role in overall health and wellbeing.[22]

Supports Organ Function

Among other things, turkey tail is an anti-genotoxin that has been shown to improve organ function by helping to repair cellular damage. A 2015 study found concentrations of turkey tail were “able to stimulate” a “genoprotective response of cells contributing to enhanced immune function, toxin removal, and strengthening, and thereby serve as a “strong antigenotoxic” agent.  

Genotoxicity is the destruction of the “integrity of the genetic material of the cells (DNA, RNA).” Genotoxins are “chemical agents that can cause chromosomal damage.” If present in reproductive cells, such damage can potentially cause a likely deleterious germline mutation, meaning the offspring will suffer from a heritible disease or birth defect. In somatic cells (non-reproductive cells) genotoxicity “may result in somatic mutation, which may lead to malignant transformation (cancer).” [20]

Immunity

Along with turkey tail’s support to facilitate bacteria balance in the gut, which contains 70–80% of the human body’s immune cells, it further supports the immune system in diverse ways. 

Turkey tail’s polysaccharides-Krestin (PSK) and polysaccharide peptide (PSP) are powerful metabolites known for their ability to boost the immune system and reduce inflammation. They have also been shown to activate immune system cells like dendritic cells, that “link innate and adaptive immunity” and play a critical role in “the induction of protective immune responses against pathogens.” [24]

Furthermore, both are “biological response modifiers” (BRMs). Also known as immunomodulators, they “target the disease-causing mechanism” and are often used in the treatment of “autoimmune diseases as first-line medications or after the failure of conventional agents.” [31]

PSK has been shown to suppress inflammatory responses by protecting against harmful bacteria through boosting macrophages, the immune cells that surround and kill microorganisms, remove dead cells, and stimulate the action of other immune system cells.[10] 

Over the past four decades, PSP has also been shown to possess immunomodulatory and anti-tumor mechanisms. Immunomodulators are substances that stimulate or suppress the immune system and may help the body fight cancer, infection, or other diseases.[7] 

While clinical studies support PSP being a potential immunotherapeutic (Immunomodulator), further analysis of the complicated chemical and multiple pharmacological properties of PSP need to be further evaluated.

Cancer

While the exact agents within PSP responsible for the beneficial effects it supports is still being actively studied, it has been used for decades in Japan and China as an adjuvant therapy in the treatment of several kinds of cancer, especially cancers of the stomach, colon, and rectum.Over the past decade, immunotherapy in cancer care has been gaining momentum in the United States. However, since 1977 in Japan and 1987 in China, an immunotherapeutic regime that employs polysaccharopeptide (PSP) is part of routine clinical practice.

PSP has also been shown to possess immunomodulatory and anti-tumor mechanisms. Immunomodulators are substances that stimulate or suppress the immune system and may help the body fight cancer, infection, or other diseases.

Specifically, polysaccharopeptide “increases the expression of cytokines and chemokines (tumor necrosis factor-α TNF-α), interleukins (IL-1β and IL-6),” prostaglandin E, and histamine, and enhances “dendritic and T-cell infiltration into tumors,” as well as alleviates the adverse effects associated with chemotherapy.[7]  

Published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2010, twenty one patients with stage III gastric cancer participated in a randomized controlled trial. Post operation, participants received the common chemotherapy drug combination tegafur/uracil (UFT) and isolated PSK, or only tegafur/uracil without PSK. The 3-year overall survival was 62.2% in the group that received PSK, and 12.5% in the control group. 

Prior to operation, among patients “there were no significant differences in the proportions of Th1 cells, Th2 cells, Th1/Th2 ratio, CD56(+) T cells, CD57(+) T cells, NK cells, and CD4(+)CD25(+) T cells” between the two randomized and controlled groups. 

Post operation, the group that received PSK, saw a significant decrease in CD57(+) T cells. High CD57(+) has been recognized as an indicator of poor prognosis in patients with advanced gastric cancer. 

In the “group treated with PSK + UFT” the 3-year survival of CD57-high patients was as great as that of CD57-low patients.” The trial concluded that “PSK improves overall survival of stage III gastric cancer patients partly by inhibiting CD57(+) T cells.” [1]

In a randomized controlled trial published in the journal Oncology, twenty patients with “curatively resected stage III gastric cancer” were assigned to receive “adjuvant therapy with the second-generation dihydropyrimidine dehydrogenase–inhibitory oral fluoropyrimidine” alone or in conjunction with PSK. 

Five weeks after receiving adjuvant therapy, T-cell apoptosis (cell death) was significantly higher in those who did not receive PSK. The study participants who received PSK showed significantly less apoptosis, demonstrating that PSK could “partially prevent the T-cell apoptosis” induced by the chemotherapy.[21] 

A retrospective study conducted by the Department of Surgical Oncology, Kanazawa Medical University in Ishikawa, Japan, on the survival rates of patients over 70 years of age, treated with UFT alone, or UFT plus PSK, found the relapse-free survival rate of the “UFT-only group (control)” to be 47.8%, whereas the UFT plus PSK group “relapse-free survival rates were 76.2%.” The overall survival rate was “52.8% in the control group” which did not receive PSK,  and “80.8% in the PSK group.”[37]

Oxidative Stress & Chronic Inflammation

Oxidative stress is “a phenomenon caused by an imbalance between production and accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in cells and tissues” and the ability to detoxify the system of these reactive products.” As oxygen-containing molecules with one or more than one unpaired electron aka “free radicals,” easily bind with other molecules in the human body, oxidation takes place. “Oxidation” is the term used to describe the series of chemical reactions that occur as free radicals react with other molecules in the body.[30]

Inflammation is a natural process of the immune system. When we sprain a wrist or ankle, or bump our head, “acute inflammation” takes place thereby delivering white blood cells to the site of injury to begin the healing process.  

Due to diet, environmental factors, chemical exposure, medications, and other factors, chronic inflammation is the result of the body’s immune system continuously releasing white blood cells and thereby “attacking” what it perceives as a threat or “foreign adversaries.” [36] Chronic inflammation may be highly persistent and “continue to simmer under the surface” for many years. Oxidative stress and the resulting chronic inflammation is strongly correlated with the onset of various diseases and health conditions including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, hypertension, and cancer.[23] 

Trametes versicolor is very high in antioxidants: chemicals that neutralize free radicals and thus prevent them from causing damage.[3] A study conducted in 2017 found nearly three dozen different antioxidants in trametes versicolor including an array of polyphenols and flavonoids (quercetin, baicalein, daidzein, amentoflavone, catechin, apigenin).[17] Furthermore, flavonoid antioxidants have been shown to support immune system health by stimulating the release of protective compounds.[29]

Turkey Tail for Pets & Animals

In a study conducted by two faculty members of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Dorothy Cimino Brown, DVM, MSCE, professor and chair of the Department of Clinical Studies, and Jennifer Reetz, attending radiologist of the Department of Clinical Studies, PSP derived from trametes versicolor aka turkey tail mushroom was shown to lengthen the survival time of dogs with naturally occurring hemangiosarcoma. 

Fifteen dogs diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma participated in the trial. Via a computer-generated randomization sequence, they were divided into three groups: one group treated with a low dose PSP of 25 mg/kg/day. The second group was treated with the medium dose PSP of 50 mg/kg/day. The third group was treated with a high dose of PSP of 100 mg/kg/day. Compounds were generated at an off-site pharmacy.

“The median time to development or progression of abdominal metastases was significantly delayed in dogs receiving 100 mg/kg/day” of PSP. Furthermore, there appeared to be a positive correlation between dose of PSP and survival time. “The median survival time increased as dose of PSP increased and high dose PSP provided the longest median survival times reported to date.” Dogs in both of “the two highest dose groups had median survival times longer than the longest median survival time reported in the literature to date.” Prior to this study, the longest median survival time was 86 days. In this study, dogs in the medium dose group had a median survival time of 117 days, while dogs receiving 100 mg/kg/day had a median survival time of 199 days.[6]

Medicinal Compounds

(Beta-Glucans, Phenols, etcetera)

  • T. versicolor contains a high amount of polysaccharides, including heteroglycan macromolecules; these compounds are highly variable in their structure.[4]
  • PSK - Polysaccharide-K, Krestin, is a protein-bound polysaccharide found within the fully developed mushrooms of turkey tail, but can be found in lower concentrations within the mycelium.
  • PSP - Polysaccharide-peptide, is also a protein-bound polysaccharide, but is only found within the mycelium of trametes versicolor
  • Both PSK and PSP are proteoglycans, a subclass of glycoproteins, which are proteins important in maintaining tissues such as cell walls and extracellular matrices.[4]
  • T. versicolor contains beta-glucans, like all mushrooms, and those have been found to have a direct or indirect modulatory influence on both innate and adaptive immunity.
  • 27 compounds were isolated and identified through nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, nine triterpenoids, eight sterols, two ribonucleotides, four phenols, three glycosides, and one feron. These are compounds likely responsible for anti-inflammatory effects.[18]
  • Other compounds isolated from T. versicolor, including: phenolic acids, flavonols, flavones, isoflavonoids, bioflavonoids, and coumarins.[4]
  • Five sterols, derivatives of two triterpenes, one hydroquinone-derived aromatic compound, on cerebroside, and one triglyceride derivative, ergosterols, ergosterol peroxide, trilinolein, ergosta 7, 22-dien-3beta-ol, and betulin were identified. Although they stress that further intensive and extensive investigations are needed, the compounds listed have potential anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antimalarial, antiviral and other antimicrobial effects.[14]

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