FUNGUS
Michael Ellis

Oh boy blessed rain, 5″ at my house this past weekend. I can almost hear the mushrooms popping up in the fields and forests. I like mushrooms and other fungi, in fact most of my friends think of me as a fun guy.

Most people don’t realize how important these plants really are. Fungi can’t make their own food like green plants. Instead they feed off of other plants and even off of animals; fungi break down organic matter to a form that can be used again by plants. Fungi help with the Earth’s recycling system. And they are
everywhere.

You know when you plop down on an old sofa and that cloud of dust causes an out burst of sneezing for ten minutes. Well it’s actually not the dust that causes allergic reactions but the mildew that live on the dust particles. Mildew is (you guessed it) a fungus.

Here I have a smut-filled tabloid — Naturalists Exposed — lying at my side. “Smut” is a fungus that appears as a black stain on plants, usually killing it. We now associate smut with anything dirty or low. That’s how most people most people view the fungi–with disgust.

The headlines read, ” LSD-crazed Biologist Claims Slime Molds Are Aliens: Protoplasmic Streaming Simply a Cover-up for Advanced Space Travel.” LSD, lysergic acid diethylamide comes from ergot, a fungus which invades rye flowers and replaces the fruit. It creates several powerful toxins. Upon eating bread infected with this rye entire European villages would go mad and die, a condition known as St. Anthony’s Fire.

Obviously the crazed biologist had become confused about slime molds. Even in the absence of LSD this is understandable. We consider slime molds to be fungi but they behave almost like a very slimy animal, slithering over the forest floor engulfing everything in their path.

The paper’s lead story was little improvement over the tabloid, “Seattle Couple Gets Second Liver Transplant.” This couple had accidentally eaten Amanita phalloides, the Death Cap. Fatality occurs in about 50% of these cases. The toxins attack the kidneys and liver. The couple should have adhered to the adage that there are bold mushroom hunters and there are old mushroom hunters but there are no old bold mushroom hunters.

For lunch today I had a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich covered with Roquefort dressing was just the ticket. The bread was made with another fungus–yeast. This beneficial “plant” was first used by humans over 6000 years ago and was actually the first plant ever domesticated. The tomato on my sandwich was the last one from the garden; all the others were suffering from blossom-end rot. This noxious fungus has a close relative that changed changed the course of history. In 1845 the potato blight struck Ireland. The resulting famine caused the death of one million people and the migration of one and a half million to the U.S. and Canada. Quite an influential fungus.

No longer hungry I plopped back down on the couch. This time the left corner leg went right through the floor. Dry rot! This fungus attacks trees whether they are lying on the forest floor or supporting you and your family. How was I going to fix the floor? This thought kept nagging me. Also nagging me was my little toe. It itched from athlete’s foot. Trichophyton interdigitale is another fungus; this one thrives in that special moist space between your toes. And then there was that redwood splinter in my arm. It was starting to fester and I’m allergic to penicillin. The common bread mold, Penicillin, has given rise to several useful products. Besides the antibiotic there is also Penicillin camemberti and P. roquefortii, which flavor cheese.

Well, maybe fungi does play a role in my daily life. Looks like I finished this article. Maybe I’ll celebrate with a beer. Ahhh… another fungal product!

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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Posted on

December 1, 2010