A particularly fascinating article was published In the July 15, 2011 issue of American Society for Microbiology. This article addresses an issue that has far-reaching implications for modern society.
First, a sidebar.
Fungi and bacteria are the mac-daddy decomposers of organic matter on earth. Without the decomposition of dead matter, we’d be covered in last year’s autumnal plumage, yard waste, and every other kind of waste imaginable. Fungi and bacteria transform all dead organic matter into nutrients to be used by living organisms for future growth. All those leaves from last year provide fertilizer for the trees to put on a show this fall.
The problem we face as an industrialized society is simple: we are burying ourselves in waste that cannot be broken down. I speak mainly of polyurethane. O, sure, it can be recycled and reformed into other shapes and for other uses, but this compound cannot be broken down and removed from the environment. Once created, it is immortal. Drive down any road in America and see what I mean. All those plastic water bottles that contained “natural” spring water are clogging waterways, roadsides, and landfills. Entire floating continents of plastic trash are floating in the world’s oceans, never to decay, providing an ever-present threat to wildlife. Styrofoam trays, packing peanuts, and coffee cups will be sitting there in a thousand years, providing future archaeologists a glimpse into our insanity.
Why does the article in ASM tickle me so? A group of scientists and students from Yale University and Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad del Cusco in Peru have announced their findings in Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi. A particular fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, has the ability to consume polyurethane as its sole source of food. Yes, a fungus that eats the inedible. A fungus that destroys the indestructible. This one fungus has the ability to save us from ourselves. The abstract reads:
Bioremediation is an important approach to waste reduction that relies on biological processes to break down a variety of pollutants. This is made possible by the vast metabolic diversity of the microbial world. To explore this diversity for the breakdown of plastic, we screened several dozen endophytic fungi for their ability to degrade the synthetic polymer polyester polyurethane (PUR). Several organisms demonstrated the ability to efficiently degrade PUR in both solid and liquid suspensions. Particularly robust activity was observed among several isolates in the genus Pestalotiopsis, although it was not a universal feature of this genus. Two Pestalotiopsis microspora isolates were uniquely able to grow on PUR as the sole carbon source under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Molecular characterization of this activity suggests that a serine hydrolase is responsible for degradation of PUR. The broad distribution of activity observed and the unprecedented case of anaerobic growth using PUR as the sole carbon source suggest that endophytes are a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation.
This fungi can overcome the Blob. This insignificant organism, hiding in the Ecuadorian jungles, can kill the invading Martians we created in the first place. We can be saved from our Frankenstein’s Monster by a fungus.
Rather humbling, no? That we, the supposed highest form of life on this planet, must turn to a microscopic organism to solve our problems for us. And it turns out to be a rather simple and elegant solution. Inoculate plastics buried in landfills, and let the hungry fungi do the rest! Win-win.
It may take years for biologists and mycologists to figure out a way to bring this vision to life. I have hopes that finally, maybe, we humans will be able to craft a solution that doesn’t cause more damage than the original problem.
All with the help of a lowly fungus.
Saturday Night Live is known for their hilarity. I’ve been watching the show since John Belushi was cutting up with a samurai sword (that should give you an idea of how old I am).
If you’ve read the home page of this site, you’ll know Bear and I have no love for processed food. Which is why this clip was so hilarious! SNL is taking swipes at the processed “food” industry with the skit “Almost Pizza“. It looks like real pizza, smells like real pizza, but isn’t! Now eat some! Om nom nom!
Bear and I went to school at Appalachian State University. Boone is like a second home to us. The mountains are in our blood.
When The Cub ™ was in 7th grade, she was accepted to and attended Duke University’s Talent Identification Program (TIP). That’s a long way of saying “summer camp for smart kids.” We were tickled beyond belief when she chose to attend TIP on the ASU campus. When check-in day came around, we found out she would be staying in the same dorm I spent my freshman year! She attended TIP for the next 4 years, always at ASU. The Cub came to love the mountains as much as we did.
For the four years she attended TIP at App, Bear and I would take a week’s vacation to drop the Cub off at TIP on campus in Boone, then head out to Price Park in the camper. One of our most favoritest things to do in the world is hike in the woods. Everywhere. Any where. The 5.1 mile Boone Fork Trail is a special fave. We never worried about getting lost; the trail is a loop. Just get back on the well-worn path and you’ll eventually get back to the campsite. Lucky thing that, because I like to get off the trail. Bear nags me about that because it impacts the environment and the condition of the trail, but when I see something that catches my eye, I’ve gotta hop on over!
The summer of 2008, Bear and I were hiking the trails around Moses Cone Manor. Moses Cone amassed quite a spread way back at the end of the 19th Century. 3500 acres. He donated the entire place, Flat Top Manor and the surrounding countryside, to the state upon his death. That estate has become part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, as Moses Cone Memorial Park. The Manor now houses a craft shop and demonstration center. We have to go there every time we are in Boone.
As we were heading down past the old apple orchard, I started rambling about mushrooms. I had just begun my discovery of mycology, an outgrowth of my interest in fungi when I had an environmental laboratory. My interest had grown from looking at mold spores through a microscope, to foraging for wild mushrooms. Bear, the quiet half of this duo, would shut up as I blabbered on. This mushroom is such-and-such. Ooo! Look! A chanterelle! Poor kid. His ears probably grew numb from all the chewing I was giving them.
We hiked along for a while, me pointing out mushrooms and wild plants, and Bear feigning interest. Then he said, “What’s that?” “What’s what?”
“That!” he says, pointing to:
I completely missed this monster! It could have taken my head off!
I had no freaking idea what this thing was. Well, I knew it was a mushroom, a polypore to be exact. But, damn! That was the biggest ‘shroom I had ever seen in my life. It was growing at the base of a spruce tree, ready to grab unwary passers-by. And Bear was the one to find it! Damn, I was kicking myself. Here I was, the supposed “mushroom expert” in the family, and I completely did not see this thing.
Over the years, Bear has woven whole yarns about this guy. He could start a textile mill with all the yarns he’s spun. Anyway, we named it the Monster Mushroom, because neither of us knew what it was. Hell, we couldn’t even find it in the Audubon Guide. We later learned the Monster is actually called a Berkeley Polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi). They can get huge. Up to 80cm (for those of you who aren’t into metric, that’s almost a yard across!) And when they are young, they are eatable (edible). Good thing that, because the Monster was so big, we were afraid it would eat us.
The next time you are walking through the woods, be very, very careful. There are real monsters in the woods!
We got a comment for the post on Gluten-free Pasta. Robbie mentioned raw food. The raw food movement makes a lot of sense, because, duh, you are eating the whole food, nothing processed. It’s a great idea. Just not for mushrooms. Here’s why.
As you can tell from the site, I’m a bit of a mushroom nut (heavy on the nut). Mushrooms are fabulously versatile, from medicines, to dyes and inks, and yes, even paper. O, and food. As a food source though, mushrooms have one big problem: monomethylhydrazine. MMH is most commonly found in rocket fuel. Many cases of “mushroom poisoning” can be attributed to this chemical. That’s the bad news, here’s the good: MMH is a volatile organic compound, so cooking drives it away.
Pay close attention to that word: Cooking. Never, ever eat raw mushrooms! Any mushroom. That includes those white button mushrooms you buy at the grocery store or get on your salads in a restaurant.
There are two types of exposure: Acute and Chronic. ‘Acute’ isn’t talking about the cuteness of the exposure. It means ‘once’. ‘Chronic’ means ‘daily’.
Low level acute exposure to MMH results in nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, while severe poisoning can result in convulsions, jaundice, coma, or death.
Clinical testing of chronic exposure to 2 and 5 ppm MMH in rats have shown a mortality rate of 2-2.5%. Other symptoms include lethargy, loss of fur, and slower growth rates in young animals. In other animal tests, dogs developed photophobia due to changes in the nictitating membranes of the eyes; dogs, rats, and monkeys showed dramatic decreases in hematocrit values, splenic hemosiderosis (enlargement of the spleen due to iron overload caused by accumulation of hemosiderin), and other nastiness.
In humans, MMH acts on the central nervous system and interferes with the normal use and function of pyridoxal phosphate, better known as Vitamin B6. This vitamin is absolutely necessary for the body to release glucose from glycogen. Glucose is the sugar on which your body runs. You know how you feel when you have a sugar crash? No glucose and your body runs out of fuel. <thud>
MMH has also been shown to be carcinogenic in small mammals.
The mushroom that has the highest concentration of MMH is the False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta). This mushroom is only edible if it has been cooked thoroughly, and then, by all accounts, it is quite tasty. I heard a sad tale in one of my mushroom club meetings. An old man in Europe loved False Morels. He would get his wife to cook them. He would sit outside while she worked over a hot stove in their cottage. He had a nice meal, while his wife keeled over dead. The process of cooking caused the MMH to evaporate, where wifey breathed it in.
Here is a picture of the False Morel. I didn’t take this picture. I’ve never actually found a False Morel!
I did take this picture, though, of the first morel I found in Spring 2012:
See the similarity?
The point of scaring you? Don’t eat mushrooms raw! Cook them first. Our favorite way is with butter, garlic, and white wine. Since MMH is a volatile organic compound, heating or drying drives it off. Meaning that edible mushrooms are absolutely safe if they have been dried or cooked.
The next time you are served raw mushrooms on a salad, send it back to the kitchen and ask for sautéed instead!
I’ve been experimenting with pasta. We don’t eat a lot of pasta in our house. Actually, let me correct that, we don’t eat any pasta in our house. We follow the “if it’s white, don’t eat it” rule.
Pasta, like bread, is made from wheat. Duh. The problem with modern wheat is it has been genetically modified drastically from what our ancestors ate. Ancient strains of wheat (einkorn and emmer) were first domesticated around 7500BC in what is now Turkey. To give you an idea of just how different modern and ancient wheats have become, just look at their genes. Modern durum wheat sports 42 chromosomes. The most ancient form of wheat, einkorn (German for “one kernel”) has only 14. Emmer wheat, also known as farro, has 28 chromosomes.
While wheat has been deliberately mutated dramatically, we humans haven’t. Our digestive system is still relatively the same as those first agricultural pioneers of 7500BC. The protein in modern wheat, gliadin, give humans with coeliac disease fits. Symptoms of this disease include chronic diarrhea and fatigue, and a failure to thrive in children. Yeah, that sounds fun.
This is about to get gross, so skip this next paragraph if you want.
In the lower intestine, the enzymes released during digestion modify the gliadin in the wheat. The immune system reacts to the modified gluten causing an inflammatory reaction, swelling the tissues. The inflammation leads to atrophy of the villi which is where nutrients in our food are absorbed. If the villi atrophy, the nutrients can’t make it to the rest of the body. If the nutrients aren’t absorbed, they pass through. Fast. And in liquid form. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Now, why all that about einkorn and emmer you talked about above, Bunny? I’m glad you asked. The ancient forms of wheat differ not only in their chromosomal composition, but also in the chemical composition of the gliadin which breaks down into gluten. The body does not react as dramatically to the gliadin and gluten from einkorn and emmer as it does to the same compounds in modern wheat. By manipulating ancient strains of wheat to increase yield, make the plant tolerant to more conditions, and everything else done to the plant (think Roundup-ready and pesticide containing seeds), our agricultural scientists have given us food that many humans just can’t eat. The only cure for coeliac disease is a life-long gluten-free diet.
Which brings us back to my experiments with totally gluten-free pastas. Thanks for sticking with me during that ramble.
I’ve been a fan for a while of quinoa and chia seeds. Yes, chia seeds, those things you smear on the ceramic pets. Quinoa and Chia aren’t grains (which means a member of the grass family). Quinoa is more closely related to spinach and beets, and we know how good those plants are. Mom told you to eat your spinach for a reason. Chia is a flowering plant in the mint family. Both of these plants are native to Meso-America. The reason I am such a fan of these seeds is their nutritional composition.
Quinoa was second only to the potato in the diet of Pre-Columbian civilizations of the Andes. This seed has a whopping 18% protein and a balanced set of amino acids. For vegetarians and vegans, this seed is a must. The nutrients contained in quinoa have sparked the interest of NASA as a possible crop in the Controlled Ecological Life Support System for prolonged space flight. Remember the Star Trek episode, The Trouble with Tribbles? Replace the Quadrotricicale from the story with Quinoa and you have the idea.
Chia has 9% protein and a whole range of essential minerals comparable to flax and sesame.
“How to use these nutritious foods?” I thought. hmm, Pasta! Our friend Nancy sent me a recipe for gluten-free pasta. I fiddled around with the recipe until I came up with a batch with which I was satisfied. I made the dough, and rolled it out by hand. If you want a good upper body workout, hand-roll pasta dough. Just sayin’.
I need to interject something here. Bear is not what you would call a frou-frou eater. He’s an amateur body-builder and has been eating whole foods for a long time. Breakfast is an egg casserole, second breakfast is another. Lunch is a can of tuna or a fresh sausage and some frozen veggies with Greek yogurt. Every day. I mean it – every single day! (As an aside to my aside: Body builders are obsessed with protein. They have to be – that’s the component from which muscle is made. Ever heard of the joke that body builders drink tuna milkshakes? Yeah, Bear tried that. Once. It was nasty. Back the the original aside.) If it doesn’t run fast enough, he’ll eat it as long as it is good, basic food. Quinoa and Chia are not his idea of good, basic foods. And pasta is a no-no!
So, when I told him I was making Shiitake mushroom-flavored Quinoa Chia Pasta for dinner, he said, “Good luck with that.” I knew I was in trouble. Dinnertime arrived and I placed a bowl of my frankenpasta before him, with broccoli cream sauce. He looked at it, then looked at me, then looked at the bowl again. He picked up is fork and gingerly tasted my experiment. Then hoovered the rest of it! When he was done, he said, “You can make that again!” O, you can be guaranteed I will, baby!