Inside the Fungi: Polysaccharides and Terpenoids – Spore Life Sciences

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Inside the Fungi: Polysaccharides and Terpenoids

By: Dr. Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

With the growing emphasis on overall health and wellness, millions of individuals have begun to educate themselves on how various plants and fungi lessen their dependence on pharmaceutical drugs.

Fortunately, there are many great natural options readily available to consumers within our reach.

Through a simple search, one can learn about the cannabinoids and terpenes contained in the trichomes of Cannabis sativa; flavonoids like anthocyanins that give many plants like elderberry or pomegranate wonderfully rich and deep shades of purple and red; or the plentiful polysaccharides and various terpenes (e.g., diterpenes, triterpenes) in medicinal mushrooms like maitake, chaga, and turkey tail.

These molecules in turn produce medicinal properties that we look to benefit from, which include antioxidative, anticancer, antiviral, mental health and antianxiety supportive properties – all of which, are increasingly important for dealing with the stressors derived from contemporary society.

The silver lining during crazy and uncertain times like today is that it has driven many individuals to research and learn the best way to use and take advantage of specific plants and fungi that hold powerful medicinal promise. And for every medicinal plant, there are specific, often unique collections of chemicals that convey the therapeutic properties as well. Just as one example, but medicinal or functional mushrooms offer polysaccharides and terpenes.


A polysaccharide is a carbohydrate consisting of a chain of sugar molecules linked together. Cellulose, for example, is like a chain-linked fence of glucose molecules, and this type of polysaccharide is known as a glucan. An α-glucan (alpha-glucan) from maitake mushrooms, called YM-2A has been evaluated for anticancer properties. This polysaccharide stimulates production of cells that enhance our immune systems like tumor necrosis factor α, different interleukins, and through macrophage cell activation. [1] β-glucans (beta-glucans) in shiitake mushrooms are known to interact with receptors on several types of immune cells. The mushrooms offer anti-tumor properties, not because they directly engage the tumor, but because they activate immune responses in the host. [2] The polysaccharide lentinan, for example, acts as a host defense potentiator which helps hosts defend against various types of cancer. Lentinan also confers antiviral, antiparasitic, and antibacterial properties. Shiitake also contains the polysaccharide named KS-2 which has also demonstrated anticancer properties.

Another polysaccharide called krestin, or PSK in turkey tail mushrooms possesses powerful anticancer properties, with one study reporting increased survival in colon cancer patients who received PSK as an adjuvant immunochemotherapy. [3] An adjuvant therapy looks to prevent cancer from coming back post-treatment, and an immunotherapy specifically targets the immune system. PSK also activated natural killer cells and potentiated the chemotherapy drug trastuzumab. [4]

Polysaccharides like PEPS30, PEPS60, and especially PEPS80 in king trumpet mushrooms, provide strong antioxidants that hunt free radicals and promote key antioxidant enzymes like superoxide dismutase that help reduce oxidative stress. [5] King trumpet mushrooms also contain polysaccharides, offering anticancer properties through their ability to induce changes within our immune systems. Two such polysaccharides, named PEP-1, and PEP-2, showed their ability to provoke apoptosis, or cell death. [6] Like other mushrooms that display anticancer properties, king trumpet polysaccharides act on the host organism’s immune system, improving its ability to fend off the invaders, in part, by stimulating the response of natural killer cells, helping them be better at their respective immune functions. [7] One such water-soluble polysaccharide named PEPw has shown to inhibit renal cancer tumor growth.

Additionally, high-molecular weight polysaccharides from Antrodia cinnamomea have demonstrated adjuvant effects on dendritic cells and in immunotherapy vaccines for cancer. [8] The polysaccharide galactomannan provides an example of an immunostimulatory compound extracted from Antrodia that enhances resistances against bacterial attacks in the early stages of an infection, but also lessens the risk of severe infection by lessening the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. [9]


Terpenes are characterized as molecules that give plants and fungi their flavors and aromas. Mushrooms contain assorted monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, diterpenes, and triterpenes. Monoterpenes contain two linked isoprene (C5H8) units whereas sesquiterpenes contain three linked isoprenes. A di- or triterpene consists of even more isoprene units. Diterpenes, for example, contain four linked isoprene units, whereas triterpenes contain six isoprene units. (Note: a terpene contains only hydrogen and carbon atoms; a terpenoid has other atoms like oxygen.)

Chaga mushrooms contain multiple triterpenoids such as the unglamorously named 3β-hydroxy-lanosta-8,24-dien-21-al, inotodiol, and lanosterol, and each of these molecules showed effectiveness against lung, stomach, breast, and cervical cancer cell lines with low toxicity to normal cells. [10] Extracts of the chaga mushrooms were further refined until three subfractions were obtained. Each subfraction conferred antitumor activity.

The triterpenoid methyl antcinate K isolated from A. cinnamomea promoted dendritic cells, which are vital leukocytes or white blood cells. [11] Dendritic cells essentially assist T-cells by processing antigens (foreign substances or toxins) and presenting them to the T-cells, which “are like soldiers who search out and destroy the targeted invaders.”

While the points I mentioned above are comprehensive, they reflect only a fraction of the potential medicinal benefits mushrooms can offer one's health and wellness. Spore is excited to be leading the charge with its intelligent functional mushroom formulations, which have been thoughtfully blended to highlight the natural power of these mushrooms and enhanced with other highly effective all-natural ingredients. This is evident in formulations such as Protect+Defend, designed to boost one’s immune’s system, or Mike’s Mushroom Mix, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory.


[1] Masuda Y, Nakayama Y, Tanaka A, Naito K, Konishi M. Antitumor activity of orally administered maitake α-glucan by stimulating antitumor immune response  in murine tumor. PLoS One. 2017;12(3):e0173621

[2] Wasser S. Shiitake (Lentinus edodes).In Coates P, Blackman MR, Betz J, Cragg GM, Levine M, Moss J, &  White JD. Encyclopedia of Dietary Supplements. 2010

[3] Sakamoto J, Morita S, Oba K, et al. Efficacy of adjuvant immunochemotherapy with polysaccharide K  for patients with curatively resected colorectal cancer: a meta-analysis of centrally randomized  controlled clinical trials. Cancer Immunol Immunother. 2006;55(4):404-411

[4] Lu H, Yang Y, Gad E, et al. TLR2 agonist PSK activates human NK cells and enhances the antitumor effect of HER2-targeted monoclonal antibody therapy. Clin Cancer Res.  2011;17(21):6742-6753

[5] Zhang B, Li Y, Zhang F, Linhardt RJ, Zeng G, Zhang A. Extraction, structure, and bioactivities of the  polysaccharides from Pleurotus eryngii: A review. Int J Biol Macromol. 2020;150:1342-1347

[6] Ren D, Wang N, Guo J, Yuan L, Yang X. Chemical characterization of Pleurotus eryngii polysaccharide  and its tumor-inhibitory effects against human hepatoblastoma HepG-2 cells. Carbohydr Polym. 2016;138:123-133

[7] Yang Z, Xu J, Fu Q, et al. Antitumor activity of a polysaccharide from Pleurotus eryngii on mice bearing  renal cancer. Carbohydr Polym. 2013;95(2):615-620

[8] Lin CC, Pan IH, Li YR, et al. The adjuvant effects of high-molecule-weight polysaccharides purified from  Antrodia cinnamomea on dendritic cell function and DNA vaccines. PLoS One. 2015;10(2):e0116191

[9] Perera N, Yang FL, Lu YT, Li LH, Hua KF, Wu SH. Antrodia cinnamomea galactomannan elicits immuno-stimulatory activity through toll-like receptor 4. Int J Biol Sci. 2018;14(10):1378-1388

[10] Chung MJ, Chung CK, Jeong Y, Ham SS. Anticancer activity of subfractions containing pure  compounds of Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) extract in human cancer cells and in Balbc/c  mice bearing Sarcoma-180 cells. Nutr Res Pract. 2010;4(3):177-182

[11] Yu YL, Chen IH, Shen KY, et al. A triterpenoid methyl antcinate K isolated from Antrodia cinnamomea  promotes dendritic cell activation and Th2 differentiation. Eur J Immunol. 2009;39(9):2482-2491