THEGREENGROK    Planetary Watch

Planetary Watch: Fungi on my Mind

by Bill Chameides | June 9th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 4 comments


The appearance of gooey yellow slime in my garden set me on a quest to find out what it was and learn more about fungi and molds.

Was it “Invasion of the Body Snatchers Comes to North Carolina” or “Birds II: Giant Droppings from the Sky?” Strange, gooey yellow things were mysteriously appearing in my yard, and I was determined to find out what they were.

The Hypothesis

My wife and I moved to North Carolina at the end of last summer when the Southeast was in the grips of a record-breaking drought. As you can imagine, it was bone dry. Thankfully, some time in late February of this year the rains came and persisted throughout the spring. While not enough to allay worries about a return to drought conditions this summer, the rain replenished our water supply, jumpstarting flower blossoms, tree buds, and some strange organisms.

In late May, right around the time that astronomer Alicia Soderberg and colleagues announced their historic observation of a supernova explosion in a galaxy some 90 million light years away, I made my less-than-historic observation of yellow goo in my yard. After some study I realized that the stuff always appeared in the morning after a rain. Just like mushrooms. Now, this was clearly not a mushroom, but what about some kind of fungus? After all mushrooms and fungi along with yeasts are part of the Fungi kingdom.

Fungal Threat to Wheat Crop

To find out more, I hopped on the Internet to learn about fungi. My search turned up amazing pictures of fungi and mushrooms — definitely worth checking out, by the way — and some startling information. This tidbit really got me: a new variety of stem rust fungus — called Ug99 — threatens to decimate wheat crops in Asia and Africa. Stem rust fungus has been around for quite some time and has caused a good deal of crop damage. But since most strains of wheat grown today have been developed to be resistant to the common forms of stem rust, it has not been viewed as a major problem.

That changed in 1999, when the new and dangerous Ug99 was discovered in Uganda. Spread by winds, Ug99 had infected wheat in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Kenya by 2007. And this year, Ug99 was discovered in the wheat fields of Iran, well before scientists had predicted its arrival. According to a report of the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, as much as 80 percent of the wheat crop in Africa and Asia is at risk.

This is serious stuff since roughly 25 percent of the world’s wheat is grown in these regions, and we are already struggling with rising food prices at home and rising starvation in the developing world. Our own wheat crop is not immune. While U.S. temperatures are a little on the cool side for Ug99, temperatures everywhere are on the rise and most of the strains of wheat we grow are not resistant to Ug99. Some scientists believe that it is just a matter of time before the winds blow the fungus our way.

Disaster is not inevitable. New, resistant wheat strains can be developed and cultivated. U.N. and government agencies as well as foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are pouring tens of million of dollars into research, hoping to get new strains into the field before Ug99 gets too far. When they do, let’s hope we don’t go down the same monoculture alley we did before. The more strains we have, the less likely we are to be wiped out by a single disease.

The Blob

After my Ug99 detour, I got back to the yellow goo in my garden. To find out what it was, I had to go all the way to Australia — virtually, that is. I went to the web site of Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation and downloaded their Fungi Field Book [PDF]. It turns out my yellow goo is called Dog Vomit Slime, and it’s not a fungus. It’s a slime mold! (Some molds are fungi — slime molds are not.) And a really cool slime mold at that. It’s a plasmodia — a single cell filled with cytoplasm and surrounded by a single membrane to hold it all together. That’s right. See the picture of the goo in my yard? All of that is one single cell. Kind of like a giant amoeba. Pretty amazing.

I have been informed that Dog Vomit Slime is not dangerous, and so I decided to just ignore the little creatures. But then as I loaded one last web page, I came across some troubling information. I learned from Tom Volk of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, that the classic Steve McQueen horror movie The Blob was about an alien slime mold that grew and grew until it devoured whole people and then entire buildings. So I’ve decided to keep my eye on those patches of goo after all. You never know….

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  1. joanna d
    Jun 17, 2008

    The Aussies sure have the name right for that slime mold! What an interesting quest. Thanks for sharing!” title=”what a name!

  2. Dave Moore
    Jul 12, 2008

    We called it the same thing as soon as we saw it (after moving to Cary from CA last year). Slime mold, eh? It does seem to be appearing in more and more places in the yard (maybe its just the heavy rain) so a question soon may be – how can I control the growth of this beast? My wife claims that her skin itched after getting some on her hand, but I suspect it was just the thought of that stuff on her hand – in any case the itch went away when she washed it off with water. Thanks for an entertaining article.” title=”great name and great article

  3. Daniel Wedgewood
    Jul 18, 2008

    What effect do fungi (or slime molds) have on the carbon in the atmosphere? Can they be useful in any way to reduce carbon emissions? Either by doing some atmospheric filtering or by providing an alternate food source which has a cheaper carbon cost?” title=”The Carbon Footprint of Fungi

    • Erica Rowell
      Jul 20, 2008

      Dr. Bill Chameides responds – For some time now researchers have been looking at ways that fungi and other simple organisms can be used in the production of alternate fuels. If we are going to have biofuels, we need a way of producing them that is not land-intensive, and using simple celled organisms may hold the answer to this dilemma. ” title=”Fungi could play a role

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