Mad About Science: Fungus

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columinst
Brought to you by the Sandpoint Library

When I mention fungus, you probably have a wonderful mental image of Athlete’s Foot or Ringworm, or everyone’s favorite ex-football announcer advertising antifungal creams back in the 90s. Boom!

We’re not going to talk much about those, today. Chances are, if you’ve ever had them, you’d like to forget about them. Instead, we’ll discuss some more exotic, as well as some more nightmare inducing fungus from around the globe.

Cordyceps. Just when you thought a nasty itch was the worst you could have it, along comes a nasty little spore that turns its victims into mindless, desiccated zombies. Why haven’t we burned that into oblivion, yet?!MadAboutScience-Fungus-WEB-feature

Mostly because it doesn’t affect humans at all. The Cordyceps fungus infects insects, primarily ants in South America. The spores will infect an unlucky ant, overtake its nervous system and begin to eat it from the inside out. It drives its sluggish host back towards its colony, with the intent of infecting many thousands more. Some colonies will actually send a suicide squad of drones to apprehend the offender and carry her off into the jungle, where they will all be inevitably infected and die. Some colonies are not so lucky; Entomologists have found massive hives turned into necropolises filled to the brim with long dead ants.

That’s horrifying, let’s talk about something else. Something more positive. Something bright!

Bioluminescent fungi are pretty awesome. What is it? What does Bioluminescent even mean?

It means a biological, organic thing that produces light. Remember the glow-in-the-dark stars most of us used to have all over our ceilings? They’re a lot like that. They emit dim glows, just enough to see them and sometimes a small area around them.

Why is that fungus glowing? Evolution, primarily. We think it has something to do with attracting insects to spread spores, or discourage predators from eating something they may think is poisonous. Sometimes, the best camouflage is to hide in plain sight and glow brightly!

Ideas have been proposed to replace streetlights with vats of bioluminescent algae that “recharge” during the daytime with help from the sun, no electricity required!

We can’t make a post about fungus without bringing up what may be the most beneficial fungus in the history of the human race. No, not Portabello. You’ve probably encountered it multiple times in your life without ever realizing it. That’s okay, most of humanity did for thousands of years before we realized its potential.

Ever let an orange sit around too long? Notice it start to get all droopy and sad? It has some nasty white fuzz growing all over it, what is that?

It’s Penicillium, and you guessed it, the source of Penicillin, the miracle antibiotic that, up until recently, was able to wipe harmful bacteria off the face of the map.

Pencillium’s awesomeness doesn’t stop at keeping us healthy and extending our lives, though. It’s the reason for Blue Cheese’s distinct tanginess; that’s right, your favorite salad topper is enhanced by that gross white fuzz. Does that gross you out? It shouldn’t, Penicillium is an alpha predator in the fungal arms race: It spreads and infuses your food with an unmistakable flavor and keeps harmful fungi and bacteria out.

It’s kind of the Superman of Fungi, when you think about it.

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