Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Let Us Praise the Bold Molds

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Let Us Praise the Bold Molds

Article excerpt

It's that time of the school year again, the point in my college biology course when I must scramble, in the dead of winter, to grow fungi for my students. To most, it's not a very alluring notion, but to a biologist, the fungi are not only intriguing, but beautiful as well.

Delicate as cotton wisps, or tough as leather, each species of fungus has its own narrow range of growing conditions - temperature, humidity, light, and nature of the substrate - that allow it to blossom forth, often explosively. Who hasn't awoken on a damp autumn morning to find the lawn, or the shade under a pine tree, studded with mushrooms that weren't there the day before?

When conditions are just right, fungi will not be daunted. Many years back, a New Jersey man blacktopped his gravel driveway during the summer. The following fall, masses of mushrooms broke through the hardened asphalt. The fellow dug at them, poured lime over them, and even set them on fire, but still they grew. They had to. In a contest between man and fungus, the outcome is seldom in doubt.

Molds, mildews, mushrooms - fungi all. What they have in common is that they are composed of tiny fibers - hyphae - that in some places are packed tightly together, as in the mushroom, and in other places are highly diffuse, as in some species of bread mold. A determined and patient mycologist (one who studies fungi) once measured the growing tips of all the hyphae of a bread mold and found that, in a single night, it had grown an astounding one kilometer.

I often sing the praises of fungi to my students. Once they get over the unappealing sound of the word, they also warm to these organisms. Neither plant nor animal, fungi emulate both: They often look like plants, but, like animals, they must get their food elsewhere, usually from dead or decaying organic matter.

Ever wonder why the forest isn't littered with fallen trees? Fungi germinate as soon as (and sometimes before) the sap of these trees has ceased to flow. In fact, even while the trees were young and thriving, their leaves thirsting for the sun, they were literally blanketed with the microscopic spores of fungi. …

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