Roy Halling is the New York Botanical Garden’s mushroom man. As curator of mycology—that’s the scientific study of the fungi family, which includes mushroom, mold, and mildew—he splits his time between the lab and the field. On a tour of the Bronx-based herbarium, which houses almost 8 million specimens, Halling told PopSci about the kingdom’s incredible capacity for rot. “Where there’s carbon, there’s a fungus ready to degrade it,” Halling says. The proof that fungi aren’t always fun guys is in everything from medicine to agriculture. Look no further than ringworm, that itchy-scratchy skin infection that can be brought on by 40 types of fungi, or the dozens of similar illnesses that also plague humans. If that doesn’t wow you, consider the banana. Specifically, the Gros Michel banana, which was the main variety sold in the United States until the 1950s, when it fell victim to the fungal-driven Panama disease. Growers replaced it with the Cavendish banana we eat today, which just so happens to also be susceptible to Panama disease. But in the last century or so, we’ve increasingly come to see these diverse and spore-tastic species as friends, not foes. Fungi has always helped to ferment our beer and give our sourdough its spunk. But in 1928, Alexander Fleming of St. Mary’s Hospital discovered penicillin, a world-changing antibiotic made from plain old mold. Today, some 1,600 antibiotics on the market owe their existence, in one way or another, to these little fruiting bodies. And as PopSci’s senior multimedia producer Tom McNamara shows in his latest video “Mushrooms Might Save the World” we’re finding ways to use mushrooms as an alternative to meat, leather, and styrofoam, too. We’re also testing them as a way to treat people with PTSD and help bees fight off mites and avoid colony collapse. But that doesn’t mean mushrooms have stopped marauding the carbon-based universe. They still use their corrosive power to consume anything and everything they encounter. It’s just that humans are getting better at harnessing that power for our own purposes. Read More: Popular Science
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