Mushrooms are among the strangest creatures on earth. Some are single-celled organisms like bacteria, others are multicellular beings resembling plants and animals. Some can even switch between these life forms. Whatever they look like, they’re an integral part of the environment: many fungi act as nature’s recyclers, breaking down dead organic matter into something that can be reused by others. And we are regularly dependent on mushrooms in many different ways, also as food.
But mushrooms can also be dangerous and deadly. Some species are notorious animal or agricultural pests; others can make people sick. In her upcoming book coming out this July Blight: Mushrooms and the Coming Pandemic, Toxicologist and writer Emily Monosson argues that unless we do something soon, the fungal problem will only get worse.
I spoke to Monosson about her inspiration for the book, why mushrooms are such a threat, and how the zombies from HBO’s latest hit, The last of us, could have been made even grosser. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ed Cara, Gizmodo: The past few weeks have given people plenty of opportunity to think about mushrooms [as of this interview’s publication, The Last of Us is approaching its season one finale]. So it’s a pretty good time to publish your book.
Monosson: Yes, it’s kind of crazy. In the midst of the pandemic. I remember asking my editor, “Should I really start writing this? I mean, after this pandemic, who’s going to read a book about pandemics?” People might still be tired when it comes out in July, but at least awareness is raised.
Gizmodo: YYou have written on several topics where the underlying theme is evolution. But what made you decide to focus specifically on mushrooms?
Monosson: I would say first that it was a disease called late blight that infested tomatoes in 2009, and ran straight up the east coast, framing the tomato crops. It turned out to actually be a fungus-like organism. And it’s the same type of organism that caused stewed potatoes in Ireland all those years ago.
And then, a few years later, there was a newspaper Nature, by a group of scientists aiming to raise awareness of fungal pathogens as important emerging diseases across species. This paper, combined with seeing what has happened with something like late blight, got me thinking more about fungal pathogens.
At the time, I suggested a book about it, but it didn’t go anywhere. But they just kept going. In 2016, the CDC started talking Candida Auris, that human pathogen, a yeast that got into the hospitals. And it was like, okay, this is a real problem and it would be good to try to make it known. Because these things don’t go away.
Gizmodo: Your book speaks of a coming pandemic. People would hear that and think of something that infects us. But you cover a variety of ways mushrooms can make life a nightmare for humans, not just by making us sick directly. What makes mushrooms so dangerous when trying to deal with them?
Monosson: If You ask the scientists who work in this field and after learning more about it I would say they are an environmental organism. Usually they produce spores that can be long-lived. Some spores can last for days, but other species can last for weeks, months, or even decades. This is very different from most bacteria and things like viruses. So one problem is that once a fungus has established itself, found a new host and started reproducing, it is very difficult to get rid of.
And then the other thing is that they don’t always need us or a specific animal as a host. Some fungi can live in other types of hosts. Again, it simply means that once established in a new region or environment, they don’t go away. Even if you’ve treated a yeast infection, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily gone from the environment. It may appear in other places on the street.
Gizmodo: What is happening in the world now that makes fungi a growing threat?
Monosson: Most of the diseases, most of the pathogens that I write about, have arisen in the last 100 years. And they probably came about because we moved the fungus from its own territory and it found new hosts and it was pretty happy in those new hosts — those new hosts didn’t have any defenses. We act, we move, we move plants and animals. The number of kilometers people travel and the number of people traveling around the world has skyrocketed. So all these moves are just a great opportunity for hitchhiking mushrooms. And then there’s climate change, which is allowing some fungi to expand into new areas or potentially new hosts.
And the other is in humans. Most human fungal infections are classified as opportunistic. And we have changed as a population. There are now more people who are immunocompromised due to diseases or medications they are taking. And these drugs are great improvements in healthcare, but they also make some people more susceptible to infections. So we have changed too.
Gizmodo: The main lesson of recent years is that viruses still pose a major threat to humanity. And in bacteria, we have antibiotic resistance, which is more of a slow-moving iceberg. And you argue that we are setting the stage for fungi to become a ubiquitous threat. Do you feel there is still action we can take now to prevent them from becoming a more serious problem?
Monosson: I think one of the best things is awareness. And if you have awareness, then prevention would involve a lot of things. If you want to go to extremes, some people would like to say that maybe we should stop trading animals or plants. A little less extreme would be finding better ways to detect the presence of fungi or fungal spores on organisms being transported around the world. And perhaps part of that could be prevention through vaccination, if vaccines can be developed. But I think it’s a difficult thing because you don’t know what’s coming next. What kind will be next? arising Mushroom- pathogen?
Gizmodo: Obviously the show The last of us has made mushrooms on everyone’s lips. But have you seen it, and if so, what did you think of how they approach mushrooms?
Monosson: I’ve seen the show, I really like it. I don’t usually like zombie shows, but I like the show. And I loved the beginning when they had these scientists on a talk show in the 1960s and they had one talking about how fungi are a problem and how climate change might make it worse. And that’s sort of happened, albeit not to such a large extent. I don’t think humans turn into mushroom zombies. But it throws many different. Interesting scientific questions that are fun to talk about.
Probably my biggest gripe is something that has changed from the games to the show. I think spurs are more important in the games, but they just don’t get mentioned on the show. But they mix a number of different aspects of fungi in interesting ways – things like the underground fungal hyphae.
And then there was something else I was thinking about the other day. The way we eat is that we eat food and then digest it with enzymes. But fungi first release their enzymes and then digest their food. This is how they break down things in the environment. So instead of zombies biting people, they should actually spit on them.
Gizmodo: That could definitely up the body horror vibe.
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