Stories tagged fungus

Feb
07
2012

This is neither Amazonian fungus, nor polyurethane: But think about it, eh? Think about it ...
This is neither Amazonian fungus, nor polyurethane: But think about it, eh? Think about it ...Courtesy elpresidente408
Or whatever. Apparently Yale sends an expedition to a tropical rainforest each year, with the mission of finding, you know, neat stuff. And being tropical rainforests, there’s plenty of neat stuff to find. (That is to say, the rainforests have tremendously biodiversity, and each of the thousands of species that live in them has interesting features to study, etc.)

After analyzing all the samples the team gathered from last year’s expedition to the Amazon Rainforest, they’re announcing some interesting findings. Among them is the discovery of a species of fungus that can digest polyurethane.

Polyurethane, of course, is a very versatile plasticky material used in all sorts of products. Unfortunately, it also sort of lasts forever, and it isn’t biodegradable—nothing we know of eats it or helps it decompose.

Nothing we knew of until now, that is! The Yale team discovered several organisms that could digest polyurethane, and one—the fungus in question—that can do it in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment. In fact, it can survive on polyurethane alone in either aerobic or anaerobic environments. The fungus itself, or the enzyme it produces that allows it to break down the plastic, could potentially become part of a solution for truly disposing of polyurethane materials, as opposed to putting them in landfills (where they’ll stay forever), burning them (which is toxic), or throwing them on the neighbor’s roof (which is fun, but limited in capacity).

The discovery also sort of goes to show you—or goes to show me, at least, because I don’t spend much time thinking about things that aren’t cats or guns—that searching for exciting and useful new species isn’t as straightforward as one might think. The polyurethane-eating fungus, for example, isn’t just some old mushroom sitting around in the jungle. It’s actually a microorganism that lives (harmlessly) inside the tissue of plants. So, like a mint hidden in the cushions of a crappy old chair, it could so easily have been overlooked and lost forever when we burned the chair down to make more room for soybeans and cattle.

Oh, I’m all mixed up. Pretty neat though, huh?

Nov
11
2007

Pumpkin rot: It happens every year, and it's always sad. And gross.  (Photo courtesy of Orbitgal on flickr.com)
Pumpkin rot: It happens every year, and it's always sad. And gross. (Photo courtesy of Orbitgal on flickr.com)
I carved a jack-o-lantern this year. It was both elegant and understated, festive and expressive, a true tribute to the holiday we call Halloween. I would have replaced my own head with this carved pumpkin, were it necessary.

I carved this work of art only the day before Halloween, and left it at my mother’s house. I like to think of it as a gift, even though my mom bought the pumpkin. Come to think of it, I should have tried to sell it back to her. Anyway, I left, and the pumpkin stayed.

Early last week my mom left on a road trip (where to, I have no idea - she’s like the wind). She left my jack-o-lantern sitting in the kitchen, no doubt hesitant to throw out such a wonderful gift from her son.

Six days later, however, when I came back to water the plants and to check if the cat was still alive, the pumpkin was no longer the object of beauty it had been. It was saggy and blotchy, rubbery and slick. Its once bright eyes were blocked with black mold, and downy white mold feathered out from between its jack-o-lips. When I poked it, sticky pumpkin juice drooled out of its mouth, and spores puffed from its eyes. I hate to use the word for any of my creations, but it was gross.fig. 2: A JGordon original. Prints for sale soon.
fig. 2: A JGordon original. Prints for sale soon.

Being the good son that I am, I decided that I would take care the vegetable abomination myself (I’ll bill my mom for it when she gets back). The job required a shovel, because it was a little too, oh, fally-aparty to pick up with my bare hands, but, without too much trouble, I was able to bring my sad jack-o-lantern to the final resting place of all good pumpkins: the woods behind the house.

The whole situation was certainly rife with potential science projects on organic decomposition and fungi, but I was too focused on getting the thing out of the kitchen to think about it at the time (and, later, I was too focused on how fun it is to lob shovelfuls of moldy pumpkin at trees). Fortunately, I’m not the first person to become interested in the disaster that is a November 10th jack-o-lantern.

Here we have a science project that determines the best ways to keep your jack-o-lantern fresh and looking sharp, from soaking it in bleach to coating it with Vaseline. It’s complete with photos of the pumpkins at various stages of decay – very nice. There are some other interesting projects on the site as well, but some of them are not entirely family friendly, so the delicate among you might want to proceed with some caution. I’m sure you would anyway.

And this site features a do-it-yourself pumpkin mold project for any children who feel like the weekend is too long to spend away from science class.