Jan. 26, 2009

'Evil' fungi are beauteous, beneficial, says mycologist

Kent Loeffler
Kent Loeffler's photo of the fungus Microstoma floccosum was taken with the tiny camera lens of a borescope.

With more than 70,000 identified species, the fungi kingdom is one of the most diverse, according to Kathie Hodge, Cornell associate professor of mycology. But 95 percent of the fungi in the world are yet to be discovered.

That is why the study of fungi is still evolving, said Hodge in a talk, "Beneath Notice: Little Fungi for Good and Evil," Jan. 25, in Cornell's Mann Library as part of the Light in Winter Festival of Sciences and the Arts.

Jokingly dubbing herself an "evil mycologist," Hodge said she investigates primarily minute fungi that infect people and animals, so-called evil fungi. For example, one species, Massopora cicadina, inhabits and proliferates in cicadas, causing damage at the most inconvenient of times: "While they are flying around looking for a mate, their butts fall off," Hodge said. Despite the title of her talk, Hodge resisted putting the organisms into good and evil categories, as fungi perform a symbiotic role with many plants and are highly adaptable, she said.

Hodge said that when she realized she preferred to study microscopic fungi, rather than those that be seen with the naked eye, she concluded she would either need to "shrink herself to a size of about 5 millimeters" or employ the help of someone or something else.

When she asked Kent Loeffler, a photographer with the Department of Plant Pathology, to look into it, his research uncovered a borescope -- an instrument that has since opened a new frontier of mycology by finding a way of "capturing a bug's eye view" of fungus and "letting us look into places we haven't looked before," Hodge said.

Hodge incorporated in her lecture images of the underside and inside of these microscopic species, as well as time-lapse photographs of fungal growth on strawberries that cause the familiar fuzzy white mold on the fruit, a rancid smell and the strawberries' eventual shriveling.

Hodge also noted how underappreciated her field is and referred her audience to the Cornell Mushroom Blog and to the second floor of Mann Library, where some of Loeffler's fungi photos are on exhibit.

Jennifer Phillips '09 is a writer intern with the Cornell Chronicle.