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It's a natural pesticide, and it's a pizza topping: Cornell professor authors a complete guide to fungi

There is fungus among us.

George Hudler, a Cornell University professor of plant pathology, tells all about it in his new, mycological book, "Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds (Princeton University Press, $29.95)," the story of the fungus kingdom and its impact on humanity.

Some 30 years ago, in a University of Minnesota lecture-and-lab class on forest pathology, young Hudler's professor sternly warned errant students of a local tavern's shortcomings: "It's not the beer that will get you," he said. "It's those free peanuts; they are loaded with mold that makes one of the most potent carcinogens known to man. Your liver just can't take such abuse forever." Hudler munched popcorn instead .

Then there was the professor's warning on the foot bath at the university swimming pool: "The damn thing's a cesspool of pathogenic fungi. If you want a good case of athlete's foot, that's the place to wallow." Hudler turned to ice hockey.

Finally, the professor described how a woman at a faculty party found herself falling through an upstairs bathroom floor, only seconds after the floor joists gave way: Fungi in the moist bathroom had hastened the joists' demise.

Soon after the stirring introductory lecture, Hudler found himself peering into microscopes, fascinated by fungi, and he's been having fungi fun ever since.

For 10 years, Hudler has been teaching one of Cornell's most popular courses, Plant Pathology 201, better known as "Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds." More than 2,000 students have taken the class in the past decade, and last spring alone 300 students enrolled. The class was featured a few years ago in Rolling Stone magazine. And in 1996, the State University of New York bestowed on Hudler a Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching, citing his ability to teach students how microorganisms interact with plants, and how fungi and mold have impacted social and political structure throughout the course of history, making the subject matter come alive.

The fascinating course is now a 248-page book with 14 chapters, on such topics as medicinal molds, yeasts for baking and brewing and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Hudler explains how fungi are classified, what they do and how they do it and how fungi can ruin our food crops. Aside from the edible and the hallucinogenic, Hudler explores the pathogenic and the toxic varieties of fungi.

He raises the possibility that "bewitched" children and animals in Salem, Mass., may have had fungus-induced hallucinations and convulsions as the root cause of their troubles. And we learn of chemist Albert Hofmann who, while studying derivatives of the fungus Claviceps purpurea in April 1943, went home lightheaded and dizzy. He had reached derivative number 25 -- that's LSD-25 -- and by accidental exposure, took an unprecedented "business trip" aided by the psychoactive powers of this fungus by-product.

To be sure, Hudler's research is aimed toward agriculture, and his book describes the importance of understanding these fungi and their impact on agriculture. One anecdote involves the mass death of 100,000 turkeys in England. The birds, being bred for the dinner table, had been fed peanut meal infested with a common storage mold, Aspergillus flavus. Pathologists determined that A. flavus produced "aflatoxin," which is one of the most potent carcinogens known.

"Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds" also describes how a fungus touched off Dutch Elm Disease, which raced through Europe and North America in the 1950s leaving millions of elms dead in its wake -- including many on the Cornell campus. The culprit, a fungus known today as Ophiostoma ulmi, and a newly discovered partner O. novo-ulmi, have effectively reduced once majestic American elms to little more than short-lived shrubs in much of the North American landscape.

While some fungi are fun to eat, others cause death and many others enhance our everyday life, perhaps by serving as a natural pesticide, or perhaps serving as an ingredient in a perfume.

"I can't help but continue to be impressed with the demonstrated ability of the fungi to fill a niche that will ensure their survival. But they aren't selfish about it," Hudler writes. "They're willing to pay their way, to contribute to the ultimate welfare of their partners, and to leave a legacy of community spirit. Just like the people who write books about them!"

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