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The fungus' share.
June 1, 2011 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Mycologist James Scott got a contract to investigate a fungus at a distillery. What he found changed mycological history.
posted by pjern (37 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
For those who want to read the comments to find out what happens in the article, then you are missing out on a fungus that appears to have learned sign language.
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:58 AM on June 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


There's mold in them thar hills!
posted by mattdidthat at 10:59 AM on June 1, 2011


Today, Scott is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto. Sporometrics has flourished since he took that first phone call a decade ago. The offices are now in a former industrial neighborhood of Toronto given over to new media companies and architecture ateliers, but Baudoinia experiments are still ongoing in the tidy, small laboratory in back. And Scott is still collecting samples. In fact, one snowy day he drove about 100 miles north of Toronto to Collingwood, on the southern tip of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, to yet another distillery, chasing Baudoinia. On Google Earth he’d seen black stuff all over the walls of the home of Canadian Mist.
What a terrible life. Tenure, and traveling from distillery to distillery around the world. Cries himself to sleep every night, I'll bet.

Lucky sumbitch.
posted by Plutor at 11:05 AM on June 1, 2011 [22 favorites]


It's articles like this that make me glad that wired is still around... but just barely.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:07 AM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Extraordinary fun guy.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:10 AM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


That was way more interesting than I expected an article about fungus to be. Absolutely fascinating.
posted by specialagentwebb at 11:11 AM on June 1, 2011


"[...] this new stage in the manufacturing cycle took the business of spirits to a new level. Now distillers needed real estate to warehouse the casks, and they needed a robust credit economy to fund the manufacture of a product that wouldn’t be sold for years. At the same time, a leisure class had to emerge that would pay a premium to drink something more refined than moonshine.

In other words, the birth of the economic ecosystem surrounding aged liquor represents a signal moment in the early Industrial Revolution, a mile marker on the road to a more civilized world. "

So, the two great drivers of economic systems is porn and whiskey. Two great things that are great together.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 11:12 AM on June 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


It changed mycological history? To have found a new genus?
posted by kenko at 11:12 AM on June 1, 2011


Interesting article. I liked the fact that there are people out there who have been able to fashion careers out of sitting under trees and watching things:

“If you go to an abandoned orchard and lie on your stomach under a tree for a week, watching which insects land on a peach and move to another one,” Scott remembers him saying, “you will know more about this fungus than anyone in the world.”

The idea of "legacy knowledge" and the technological transformation of biological sciences is pretty interesting:

That’s all changing now. The genome experts are taking over, planning to hoover up thousands of genetic samples and identify them by their DNA sequences. It’s a controversial shift in a field that has fought wars over nomenclature. Scott, though, was trained in the old school of mycological taxonomy, as practiced by a largely retired generation of scientists who could ID a fungus on sight. “James is a bit of a throwback,” says Keith Seifert, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, who has worked with Scott for years. “He’s interested in legacy knowledge.”
posted by KokuRyu at 11:15 AM on June 1, 2011


I liked the fact that there are people out there who have been able to fashion careers out of sitting under trees and watching things

Well, if it works for Newton...
posted by Solomon at 11:17 AM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, where's this big change in mycological history I've heard so much about?
posted by clockzero at 11:33 AM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This discovery has changed the future of mycological history.
posted by found missing at 11:47 AM on June 1, 2011


Great article!

At first I was feeling a little impatient with the pace, but after the opening few paragraphs almost everything was completely new to me.

I wonder if Scott has plans to go to Chernobyl and investigate the black fungus coating things there which is supposedly somehow harvesting energy from radiation.

The Wikipedia article describes a mixture of fungi similar to what the scientists at the distillery found while missing the new genus Scott discovered:

Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine showed that three melanin-containing fungi, Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Wangiella dermatitidis, and Cryptococcus neoformans, increased in biomass and accumulated acetate faster in an environment in which the radiation level was 500 times higher than in the normal environment.
posted by jamjam at 11:47 AM on June 1, 2011


This left me looking for the rest of the article. I clicked the page links, only to realize I'd already read the entire piece. I mean... it only got to the point that they decided it was new and then named it. They never figured out how it came to be in that niche, or how it uses ethanol.

This is why I don't watch TV series until they're over and on DVD.
posted by gilrain at 11:59 AM on June 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I liked the article, but was a bit let down by the ending. I'd like to know what freaky cool thing the fungus is doing. I feel kind of left hanging.
posted by OmieWise at 11:59 AM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had no idea that the black gunk on buildings in industrial areas might be fungus; I assumed it was just accumulated exhaust and dirt. The idea that it's a fungus somehow makes me happier.
posted by emjaybee at 11:59 AM on June 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I like the end of the article. It emphasizes the fact that, uh, we don't know what the mechanism is, and that if you wanted to you could find out. It's like amateur astronomy; it's a field where with some diligence and $300 in equipment, rather than the $300 million you need for some fields, you can do interesting work pushing at the boundaries of human understanding.
posted by Fraxas at 12:01 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


That is a fascinating article, thanks for posting it.
It has a great little nugget about how to teach undergrads: tell them what we don't know yet. (He mentions he got interested in mycology when a professor told the students about a fungus that moves from peach pit to peach pit, but we don't know how it moves.)

I also love the defense of "legacy knowledge" - the good old taxonomist naturalist, who can identify specimens by how they look, and the glory of having a good collection of samples where you can go back and select a sample of the fungus someone collected more than a hundred years ago on another continent. Genomics is great, but it's terrible that we're losing the hard-won population of people who can identify all these things by using a microscope. (and this is true all over science - entomologists etc)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:06 PM on June 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Run out of his apartment, it was a sort of consulting detective agency for companies that needed help dealing with weird fungal infestations.
Call me crazy, but this sounds pretty fun. Magnum PI for fungi. Do you think he drives a Ferrari, too?
posted by jillithd at 12:07 PM on June 1, 2011


I'd like to know what freaky cool thing the fungus is doing.

Once it reaches a critical size, it'll be able to rewrite the universe using its conscious mind. /Blood Music'd
posted by drezdn at 12:16 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great article. It's a talented writer who can make a compelling story out of classifying mold.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:16 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lately, Wired has had at least one, if not several good articles per issue, including this one, the one about the sub in Columbia and the story about the professor who killed several colleagues. Keep it up, Wired.
posted by drezdn at 12:18 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been to a bunch of distilleries, but I never realized the blackened buildings were evidence of fungal growth. I just assumed the evaporated alcohol did something chemical with the stone walls. This is much more awesome.
posted by lholladay at 12:26 PM on June 1, 2011


Call me crazy, but this sounds pretty fun. Magnum PI for fungi. Do you think he drives a Ferrari, too?

Unless he's living on a reclusive writer's estate, I'd imagine he's more likely driving a sweet rental-return Neon...
posted by pupdog at 12:44 PM on June 1, 2011


I used to live out near that area, in East Windsor. The awesome smell from the cask storage facility was a huge contrast from the stench from the actual distillery. I don't remember any black mossy fungus, though.
Most of that part of Windsor is pretty dirty anyway, what with the various automotive plants.
posted by rocket88 at 1:10 PM on June 1, 2011


Fascinating article, thanks.
posted by togdon at 1:14 PM on June 1, 2011


I guest lectured to one of Scott's classes a few months ago (not on anything to do with myco). He's super-sharp and, given the breadth of his interests, I'm guessing we're going to be hearing a lot more from him both beyond and interdisciplinizing mycology.

I think we're also on the verge of hearing a lot more about 'legacy knowledge'.
posted by waterunderground at 1:26 PM on June 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


This left me looking for the rest of the article. I clicked the page links, only to realize I'd already read the entire piece. I mean... it only got to the point that they decided it was new and then named it. They never figured out how it came to be in that niche, or how it uses ethanol.

I did the same thing. Great article!
posted by francesca too at 1:29 PM on June 1, 2011


The article runs out of steam just about the point the writer ran out of budget. Kind of like when the distillery said, "okay, fuck, we're feeding it, fine, we'll clean it up, now go away." Wired said, "cool, three page views, that's enough you can stop now".

I wish I could have read it in the New Yorker instead.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:27 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Speaking of fungus and booze, did you know that one of the first steps in brewing sake is making moldy rice? I ought to get my act together and start another batch.
posted by exogenous at 2:28 PM on June 1, 2011


did you know that one of the first steps in brewing sake is making moldy rice

I'm more interested in lightly spoiled rye and where that leads. :)
posted by hippybear at 2:59 PM on June 1, 2011


There are nematodes that live only in German beer coasters.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:12 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


James Scott's UoT homepage has links to the papers describing how Baudoinia uses ethanol.

This one [pdf] looks like the latest (haven't read it - I have to run into the cave now).
posted by porpoise at 3:18 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm more interested in lightly spoiled rye and where that leads. :)
posted by hippybear at 10:59 PM on June 1 [+] [!]


Eponyscadelic
posted by kersplunk at 4:01 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


We visited the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg awhile back and this black mold is pretty much all over everything near the main buildings - the trees and so forth are covered in it. The tour guides told us that it was a fungus that only grew around distilleries.

It's like amateur astronomy; it's a field where with some diligence and $300 in equipment, rather than the $300 million you need for some fields, you can do interesting work pushing at the boundaries of human understanding.

Comments like this make me want to buy a microscope, chuck it all and became a wizened old mycologist, slightly batty, with a lab/study stuffed full of skulls, herbaria and stuffed birds. I guess that's what retirement will be for.
posted by jquinby at 7:43 AM on June 2, 2011


A fact from StickyCarpet's link which amazes me every time it crosses my mind:

Free living nematodes are long thin worms with transparent and typically curled bodies, parasitic species have a variety of less streamline shapes relating to their degenerate parasitic life styles, one unifying characteristic that makes the phylum unique is the lack of cilia or flagella, even the sperm of nematodes are amoeboid.

"...even the sperm of nematodes are amoeboid."

Wow.
posted by jamjam at 9:23 AM on June 2, 2011


Makes me think of the ethanol plants in the US midwest, even with all the wind, maybe someone could find it there, too.
-lcc
posted by primdehuit at 12:11 PM on June 2, 2011


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