Week 2 - Mycelium, Bread, Life

I am continuously interested and pleasantly surprised by the new perspective and insight the course material offers me on familiar topics. Fungi has always been a fascinating topic for me, as it exists as some strange in-between of plants, animals, and bacteria. While mushrooms are typically thought of as plants or food, their dynamic and unique structures differentiate them from plant life and actually bear more similarity to the animal kingdom - a fact that surprised me as I researched the subject more after class (Three Reasons Fungi Are Not Plants (asm.org). Fungi are also uncredited and misunderstood. While the most obvious examples of fungi are edible mushrooms, they have been responsible for critical human advances. The recent harnessing of fungi as a complement and potential replacement to leather is just one example of how fungi have consistently disrupted the status quo and given humans important avenues for technological revolution. Fermentation and yeast have been important pillars of human civilization, aiding in Europe's survival amidst the Black Plague and being critical in the formation of essential materials like penicillin and other medicines (The Mycelium Revolution Is upon Us - Scientific American Blog Network). 

Fungi often even seem otherworldly. The fungi kingdom has an interesting capacity to subvert our understanding of the natural world. The quasi-internet formed by mycelium is a key example of this phenomenon. The mycorrhizal network, formed by the 'roots' of fungi extends for endless distances under forest floors. Beyond functioning like traditional roots, the network enables trees to communicate and even share resources (Underground Networking: The Amazing Connections Beneath Your Feet - National Forest Foundation (nationalforests.org). Learning this made me think about the unknown wonders that can be found on our own planet. While scientists and laypeople often look to the stars for inspiration and as the next frontier of human discovery, Earth and the familiar arenas we think we have explored can contain information which can help us advance far beyond our wildest imagination. Tree communism does works better than the human one seemingly, so perhaps we should take some notes. 

Fungi have also taken over the pop culture zeitgeist as of late. HBO just finished airing the first season of 'The Last of Us', a show based on a video game of the same name. There, fungi plays a critical role in the show's mythology - but unfortunately it is the basis of an apocalypse which has turned humans into zombie-like creatures. What makes The Last of Us so terrifying is that the show's vision of the apocalyptic fungal virus is based on a real natural phenomenon: the cordyceps fungus. This particular species of fungi infects bugs and takes over their motor capabilities, making them turn erratic and climb up to heights where the fungi can thrive and reproduce (“The Last of Us” Apocalypse Is Not Realistic, But Rising Threat of Fungal Pathogens Is < Yale School of Medicine). Fortunately, the cordyceps only affects bugs but the idea that such a phenomenon exists is a terrifying thought. I have attached pictures of the cordyceps fungus below for those who are curious about a real-life horror. 

 

I am also glad that kvass was a subject of conversation. As an Armenian, I am very well-aware of this beverage, which has continued to be a staple on post-Soviet kitchen tables. Its distinctive, slightly sweet taste reminds me of my childhood. The history of kvass also helped me make a connection with bread, beer, and fermentation generally. Fungi's ubiquity allows it to be a true egalitarian vehicle - with the materials it creates able to be shared and enjoyed by all classes. Kvass is a beverage which was a mainstay on the tsar's table as well as on the peasant's, largely due to how inexpensive it is to create - with fermentation doing the heavy lifting (A brief history of Kvass, Russia’s ‘bread in a bottle’ - Russia Beyond (rbth.com). In that sense, it is similar to bread, another critical food which unites all the various classes of society. Mushrooms and communism - both in the forest and on the dinner table; interesting. 

I love how this relates to the stain glass art piece we saw in our field-trip on Wednesday. I interpreted the piece as a celebration of life and a religious appreciation of the misunderstood material which has given man nourishment, medicine, and understanding. It places life itself as a subject of worship. I have attached a photo I took of the exhibit below. 

IMG_0080.jpg

Below also is an ingredient list of one of my favorite types of bread: Trader Joe's whole wheat pita bread - I highly recommend :) 

 

IMG_0139_0.jpg

Sources:

Backman, Isabella. “‘The Last of Us’ Apocalypse Is Not Realistic, But Rising Threat of Fungal Pathogens Is.” Yale School of Medicine, 6 Feb. 2023, https://medicine.yale.edu/news-article/the-last-of-us-apocalypse-is-not-realistic-but-rising-threat-of-fungal-pathogens-is/.
Bayer, Eben. “The Mycelium Revolution Is upon Us.” Scientific American Blog Network, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/. Accessed 18 Apr. 2023.
Holewinski, Britt. “Underground Networking: The Amazing Connections Beneath Your Feet - National Forest Foundation.” National Forest Foundation, https://www.nationalforests.org/blog/underground-mycorrhizal-network. Accessed 18 Apr. 2023.
Lovett, Brian. “Three Reasons Fungi Are Not Plants.” American Society for Microbiology, 6 Jan. 2021, https://asm.org:443/Articles/2021/January/Three-Reasons-Fungi-Are-Not-Plants.
Sinelschikova, Yekaterina. “A Brief History of Kvass, Russia’s ‘Bread in a Bottle’ - Russia Beyond.” Russia Beyond, 23 Aug. 2021, https://www.rbth.com/russian-kitchen/334126-brief-history-drink-kvass.

Edit: One of the pictures did not work so I changed the format - seems to work now. 

Edit 2: Fixed sources