Fungus plays key role on our planet

Kathie Hodge, associate professor of mycology at Cornell University, is a passionate defender of fungi and the editor of the Cornell Mushroom Blog – – where she and her students write about the mysterious world of mushrooms.

Q. Are there misconceptions you’d like to dispel about fungi?

A. It does seem like strong tendency in this country to believe mushrooms are horrible, dangerous things. Overall, mushrooms are kind of incredible things, and they play important roles in our world, like supporting whole forests and our agricultural crops. If you look out your window, just about any tree you see out there and every blade of grass is hooked up, underground, to a fungus. They gather nutrients for the tree and make a nice swap: The tree donates some sugar to the fungus and the fungus brings water and minerals to the tree.

Q. Do you have a favorite fungus?

A. I like mold a lot, which sounds terrible. The problem with molds is we see them at the wrong scale. If you could shrink yourself down to bug size, they would look a lot like this beautiful rainforest. They play an important role in decaying things. Listerine breath strips are made of a mold product, perfectly safe to eat. We have good stuff like soy sauce and blue cheese … all fungus-based. When you have a nice, tangy, lemony soda, the taste is citric acid and that is produced by growing fungi in large quantities. It’s really fungi soda.

Q. What about fungi that are harmful to people?

A. Aspergillosis is a fungal lung disease that can be hard to treat, especially in people with weakened immune systems. Cryptococcosis is an emerging fungal disease in healthy and immune-compromised people. And (there is) mucormycosis, another bad one that isn’t common, but can kill swiftly when it takes off. (There was a recent outbreak) in a New Orleans hospital.

Q. What are some other things we should know about the world of mycology?

A. We think that only 5 percent of fungi have even been named. They’re hard, they’re small, they’re kind of beneath notice. And there just aren’t very many mycologists in the world. (Fungi) are more closely related to animals than to plants. If you look at their DNA and how their cells work, they’re closer to us than to green things. People find that disturbing. I get some delight in telling that to people.