Breaking out of the Mold

Unbowed but rarely upright, a band of Maryland scientists prowls for undiscovered fungi

August 30, 2006|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Reporter

The mycologists are merry. The sun is shining, and they've snagged the van from the roundworm lab downstairs. Behind them lie the fortresslike walls of Beltsville's U.S. National Fungus Collections; ahead, the open road, winding toward Catoctin Mountain in Western Maryland, and acre upon acre of rust fungus.

The leader of this collecting trip is Cathie Aime; she's the one at the wheel. For someone who creeps through forests as slowly as slime mold (mushroom-hunting in the jungles of Guyana, she covers just 50 square meters a day), the woman drives like a demon. And she keeps turning around to discuss the phylogeny of rust - a kind of evolutionary family tree, which the scientists are working on today, tomorrow and possibly forever.

"I will not finish in my lifetime," Aime says, swerving around a Civic.

In the back seat, the "rust slaves" are wondering how long the lifetime of anyone in the van will actually be. The slaves (that's their field name; the more scientific term would be two lab technicians and a post-doctoral student) shoot anxious glances at the weaving road. But as Aime details the plight of fungi scholarship, they seem to forget their own peril, heads bobbing in agreement as she explains that there are an estimated million undescribed and undiscovered fungal species. The media don't even acknowledge new arrivals.

"Fungi are not big, charismatic organisms like trees and sharks," Aime says. "Lots of times the work they do is invisible."

So, too, with the mycologists who study them. The collection, part of a huge Beltsville research complex run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the world's largest, with an adjoining lab that analyzes all manner of mushrooms and molds and mildews. Yet hardly anyone realizes it's there, even in this, Maryland's peak fungus season.

"We have a national fungus collection?" says a USDA spokesman. And those who do know have a hard time taking it seriously. When asked for directions to the labs, a security guard at the complex suppresses a giggle. Building 011A, she says.

There, tucked away on an almost windowless upper floor cluttered with test tubes, a dozen people toil in semi-darkness. The dim lighting is not for the fungi. It's for the electricity bill, which must be kept low. Fungal funding is quite scarce these days, says Amy Rossman, head of the lab.

How times change. Humans once worshiped a god of fungus: Robigus, who commanded the mildew and rust that could decimate crops. The Romans sacrificed sheep and dogs to appease him.

But at some point, or so one theory goes, fungi became associated with witchcraft, and everyone - scientists included - began to steer clear of the stuff, and have ever since. It's easy to see why. Fungi have the rare distinction of looking both bizarre and boring.

Not all fungi are cute, Papa Smurf-style toadstools. They can resemble volcanoes and parasols and spaceships and lace, and their common names do sound rather like caldron ingredients. There are fairy clubs and jeweled puffballs, snake tongues and stinkhorns. Bunk of oats, blight of juniper, galls on maize. Candle snuff fungus and cramp balls.

But while some species fruit in brilliant shades of butterscotch and blood orange, a disproportionate number seem to favor a dull brown. And while at least one kind has seven tails and swims around in cows' bellies, most don't get around much. One of their contributions to ecosystems is breaking down dead matter, a vital but hardly spectacular process.

"So not a lot of people are interested in studying them," Aime says.

The van rumbles into a parking lot near the base of the mountain in Cunningham Falls State Park, north of Frederick, where the rust team does much of its collecting. Almost as soon as Aime throws the gearshift into park the rust slaves tumble toward the woods, which are fairly sizzling with the songs of cicadas and other summer activity.

This hubbub, needless to say, has nothing to do with the rust fungi, which are fuzzy, parasitic specks that cling to the undersides of plants, absorbing nutrients. The team has collected and cataloged DNA from about 1,000 varieties; there are at least 6,000 more to go, and Aime estimates that the number is probably closer to 60,000, counting all the species that are as yet unknown, and awaiting discovery. Maybe today will bring a newcomer.

Slow work

The lab techs walk and crawl around in a grassy clearing, and Aime drops to her knees. It is slow, slow work. They inspect individual blades of grass, flip leaves, uncurl ferns. When something interesting turns up, it is scrutinized beneath a tiny magnifying glass. If it looks like rust, a clipping is deposited in a rumpled 7-Eleven bag, and the longitude, latitude and altitude noted. More often, the scrap of plant is tossed.

"I think this is bug poop," says Dan Schmidt, looking dispiritedly at a specimen. "Cathie, what do you think?"

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