[MPWG] A "fun"gal perspective on conservation

Patricia_DeAngelis at fws.gov Patricia_DeAngelis at fws.gov
Mon Feb 2 10:56:24 CST 2004

Dear MPWG'ers,

This essay was sent to me this morning - it's a fun way to look at the
conservation issue.  Enjoy!


Interview with a fungus

 From The World in 2004 print edition

 The essay competition run by Royal Dutch/Shell and The Economist has
 reached its fourth year. This time the question posed was "Do we need
 nature?" Nearly 6,000 people, from all over the world, offered answers.
 The first prize of $20,000 was won by Diane Brooks Pleninger from
 Anchorage, Alaska, whose essay, printed here in slightly abridged form,
 inverted the question neatly and informatively

 D.P. Good evening, viewers. Our guest is Pilobolus crystallinus, author of
 the award winning bestseller, "Do We Need Mankind? A Fungal Perspective".
 Mr Pilobolus is a member of the kingdom Fungi, class Zygomycetes. He is a
 scholar, lecturer, dung-dweller and author. Welcome, Mr Pilobolus.

 P.c. Thank you, Diane. Good to be here.

 D.P. Mr Pilobolus, your most recent book raises tantalising questions
 about the future
 of the biosphere and the role that you and other inhabitants will play in
 it. Tell us how
 you came to write it.

 P.c. The book resulted from a series of symposia I attended over the past
 two centuries under the sponsorship of the World Federation of Fungi, on
 the topic, "What Does Nature Need?" The Academy of the WFF is constituted
 of one delegate from each family of fungi. I was fortunate to represent
 the Pilobolaceae.

 D.P. The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been a revolutionary period in
 the biosphere. How have fungi been affected by the events of modern

 P.c. The modern history of the fungi, which I date from about 400m years
 ago, has been a remarkable success story. The fungi occupy two vital
 niches in nature whose importance has never been challenged. In one niche,
 we are drivers of the carbon cycle, elite teams of detritivores whose
 mission is to digest organic matter and return the component parts to the
 ecological system. Without our work, life on earth would long since have
 ground to a halt for lack of raw materials. In another niche, we act in
 partnership with the roots of plants to extend their reach into the soil
 environment and enhance their uptake of water and nutrients. These
 partnerships are called mycorrhizas?myco for the fungus, rhiza for the
 root. Animals in turn feed on plants and benefit from this arrangement. So
 the fungi play two very distinct roles worldwide, and both roles are
 critical to maintaining the biosphere.

 D.P. When does mankind come into your history?

 P.c. Mankind comes into our history about 20,000 years ago, at the time
 they discovered the uses of alcoholic fermentation. We credit the genus
 Saccharomyces with this  development. Ancestral spores of that yeast
 settled in a pot of gruel prepared by a group of hominids whose existence
 up to that point was best described as nasty, brutish and short. This
 began what we call the honeymoon period in the relationship of man and
 fungus. Unfortunately, it didn't last long.

 D.P. What happened to end it?

 P.c. Two things. Agriculture was one. Monocropping and animal husbandry
 led to concentrations of plant and animal populations that were vulnerable
 to certain of our members, particularly the smuts, rusts, mildews and
 blights. Some crops and herds proved to be sensitive to basic fungal
 metabolites. For instance, my colleague Claviceps purpurea produces the
 biochemical ergot. Ergot causes gangrene, madness and death in humans.
 However, there is no credible scientific evidence that it evolved in C.
 purpurea with harm to mega-fauna in mind. The same may be said of
 Aspergillus flavus, which occurs on nuts and grains. The afla-toxins
 produced by A. flavus are among the most powerful poisons and carcinogens
 on earth. To A. flavus, they are merely metabolic by-products, with a
 touch of self-defence function as well.

 The other change for the worse resulted from transportation. The rapid
 movement of species allowed no time for immunities to develop in local
 populations. Many fungal species have been vilified for causing mass
 exterminations of elms, chestnuts, potatoes and other plants. This mirrors
 the unhappy experience of animal and viral micro-organisms implicated in
 plagues and epidemics. The real culprits, of course, are the humans who
 transport exotics from continent to continent.

 D.P. As you see it, what has been the human purpose during recent

 P.c. With the advantage of hindsight, I think we can summarise it as a
 failed experiment in individualism. The idea of the individual?and there
 is no fungal equivalent?arose during a period of rapid change in human
 society. In the abstract, individualism looked defensible, even appealing.
 The ideal individual was to be educated and enlightened, someone we'd all
 like to know. However, as a practical matter, the culture of enlightened
 individualism reformed itself after a brief period into a cult of personal
 freedom. Over the next several centuries, unbridled personal freedom and
 chance distributions of natural resources led to the creation of certain
 wealthy and isolated colonies of humans. Their prosperity excited envy and
 the rest of the world did what they could to emulate them. Large
 populations of humans moved from a very simple experience of the natural
 world to the expectation of a lifestyle similar to what the exploiters
 were enjoying. This clamour for plenitude put enormous stress on the

 D.P. As we know, humans failed to reverse this trend. Can you explain
 their failure to act?

 P.c It certainly wasn't for want of trying. If you visit the media
 archives of mankind?and we fungi are able to do so freely in spite of
 their efforts to exclude us?you will see that environmental issues were at
 the forefront of concern in all the wealthier nations for the past century
 and a half. Treaties, regulations, protocols, public opinion were used to
 stem the tide of harmful practices. But population growth outpaced the
 effectiveness of trade boycotts and outran the ability of the media to
 cultivate public awareness of environmental issues. And population growth
 added to the pressure on the biosphere as more and more people demanded
 higher standards of living.

 A couple of analogies can help us visualise what was happening. One is the
 problem of  the universal solvent. If there were such a substance, what
 would you keep it in? The phenomenon of affluence turned out to be a sort
 of universal solvent. Nothing could contain it. More insight is provided
 by the old canard about bread and circuses, which refers to the
 stultifying effects of amusement. Poor-quality information tends to
 ferment into low-grade entertainment. Under the sulphurous glare of
 continuous, worldwide news
 broadcasts, human institutions?government, military, religious, culture
 itself?became subjects of human amusement. This unrelenting,
 self-referential entertainment left a large
 part of mankind chronically inebriated and fundamentally uneducable.

 D.P. Many times in your book, you mention what in earlier centuries would
 have been called "values"?altruism, moderation, that sort of thing. How do
 fungi define ethical values? Or perhaps you call them spiritual values?

 P.c. (Laughs.) Much of what others consider spiritual, we call secular.
 This does not mean we are without a theology. There are two major systems
 of mycotheism in the fungal world. The more recent religion is only about
 50m years old, but it has a strong representation among the younger
 orders. The older religion is more widespread, although it is also more
 rationalised from the original texts. Overall, 99.4% of fungi are
 adherents of one or the other faith. But the important thing to note is
 that there are no tensions, no doctrinal disputes between the two theisms.
 The core principle of both religions is identical.

 D.P. And that principle is...?

 P.c. Whereas the root principle of virtually all the religions of mankind
 is behaviour modification, our core religious value is species
 recognition. The fungi comprise nearly a
 million and a half species and uncounted millions of mating types. The
 pressures that result from diversity of this magnitude cannot be
 overstated. We have long recognized that the best way to maintain order in
 the system is to encourage institutionalized mycotheism. As a result, we
 are widely considered to be the polity most capable of reaching consensus
 among ourselves and acting in concert upon that consensus.

 D.P. How do you describe the present relationship between nature and

 P.c. I can only speak for the fungi, who characterise mankind as
 expendable. My chapter,
 "Many Keystones, One Arch", explores the uses that mankind has made of the
 fungi, which range from antibiotics and immunosuppressants to papermaking
 to bread, beer, cheeses and wines, and the familiar delights of mycophagy.
 Our members observed and recorded millions of human-fungus interactions
 over a period of two centuries. Again, humans cannot escape our
 observation. We are everywhere: on their skin, in their homes,
 underground, in the stratosphere. After intensive analysis of these data,
 the Academy was not able to identify even one indispensable human-fungus
 transaction. No obligate parasitism, no essential relationships, no sine
 qua non. I ask readers to remember this important fact as they learn the
 startling outcome of our deliberations.

 D.P. Without revealing the ending to your book, can you speak briefly
 about the last chapter?

 P.c. Recently, the Academy convened a plenary forum to review our findings
 on the place of man-kind in the world ecosystem. We evaluated the state of
 the biosphere, giving due weight to man-kind's most recent energy
 policies, bioengineering innovations,
 developments in agriculture, industry and transportation, the efforts made
 towards environmental remediation and detoxification of hazardous and
 radioactive wastes. We considered the question of just how much
 perturbation of the natural order we should tolerate from human
 activities. We agreed that the biosphere presently stands at 9.6 on a
 scale of disturbance from zero to ten. Based on these findings, the
 Academy adopted a position statement which we presented to the WFF. I have
 taken the title of that statement for my last chapter, "The Knot of a
 Thousand Tyings". I'd like to read from it, if I may.

 D.P. Please do.

 P.c. "Our members do not recoil from the future. We believe that life on
 earth is embarked on a unique trajectory, one that will not be repeated.
 We believe that the outward journey has entailed a long and intricate
 interweaving of the interests of all living things. We believe that the
 homeward path will entail the systematic unweaving of those threads. We
 believe we are eminently suited for a role in this process."

 The full version of this essay, and the seven other prize-winning entries,
 can be found at www.shelleconomistprize.com

 The judging panel comprised:

 Richard O'Brien, jury chairman and strategy consultant at Outsights;
 Peter Warshall, editor at large, Whole Earth magazine;
 Christine Loh, co-founder and CEO, Civic Exchange;
 Sally Feldman, head of the School of Media, Arts and Design, University of
 Adrian Loader, director of strategic planning, sustainable development and
 external affairs, Shell International;
 Bill Emmott, editor, The Economist

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