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9 Molds Trying to Take Over Your Kitchen

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At some point in your life, you’ve likely rummaged around the kitchen for a tasty snack, opened it up, and discovered that your treat has been cheerfully consumed by a colorful fuzz. Although your reaction was probably simple—“Ick, mold!”—not all molds are made alike. There are actually a couple thousand of genera of mold within the kingdom Fungi, and many more species, each with its own special traits and talents. Specialists, generalists, molds that like it damp, or dry, or fruity—they’re living and breeding among us.

The fuzz you see is actually just the fruiting body of any given mold—namely, its spores. These hang out trying to catch a breeze on to something organic to grow on. Under the hairy bit is the body of the mold, the mycelium. If you were to cut open a moldy bagel instead of chucking it, you’d find that the mycelium’s feathery strands, called hyphae, had already feasted on the inside, excreting digestive enzymes to turn it into a smelly web.

Just what do these molds want with us and our edibles? “To reproduce and take over the world,” says Kathie Hodge, an associate professor of mycology at Cornell University. Hodge's research focuses on the classification of fungi—including molds. She also edits the Cornell Mushroom Blog.

Hodge says the ecological function of molds is to act as recyclers. But that definition “gives them short shrift," she adds. "Molds live their own vibrant and interesting lives.” Sometimes their drama plays out in your kitchen.

Here’s a tour of some of what Hodge calls the “small and elegant” entities waiting to turn your fridge into a fascinating fungus zoo:

1. RHIZOPUS STOLONIFER, A.K.A. BLACK BREAD MOLD

It’s likely that this white-then-black species is the one that took over your bagel. How? Hodge says spores may have landed on it back at the bakery, or maybe they first infiltrated some breadcrumbs that fell unnoticed behind your toaster. Rhizopus stolonifer is a bread specialist, getting to it early, eating it like crazy, and growing incredibly fast. Molds love sugar, “and as anyone on a low-carb diet knows, bread is starch, which is basically sugar and easy to break down,” says Hodge. Is it safe to eat a Rhizopus-infected bagel? “It would taste disgusting, so don’t go there."

2. PENICILLIUM CHRYSOGENUM

It’s also possible that this puffy bluish mold is your bread-eating culprit. Yes, Penicillium is the same genus that brings you lifesaving penicillin. But don’t try to use your blue bagel as a home remedy. “I can’t tell you how many times people have said, ‘I have a cut on my arm, should I put moldy bread on it?’” sighs Hodge. Mold only morphs into antibiotics after it’s been extracted from its growth medium and purified in a lab and furthermore, the Pencillium group as a whole—there are over 300 species—is famous for making many and diverse toxins. Still, one species also makes blue cheese (Penicillium roqueforti), and another cures salami (Penicillium nalgiovense).

3. WALLEMIA SEBI

This is one of the true oddballs of the mold world—an extremophile that likes to live, as this name suggests, in extreme outposts. Extreme for a mold is a place that’s salty or super-sugary, and therefore, dehydrating. Enter Wallemia sebi, thick brownish blobs of which Hodge once found floating in her maple syrup. “It’s really slow and patient,” she says, hiding out and waiting for its time to pounce. “So, if you eat your maple syrup at a normal rate, you’re never going to see it.” Wallemia sebi is the source of some amount of controversy among Hodge’s colleagues. Some of them insist that it’s harmless. But remember, Hodge points out, “it’s been eating and excreting into your syrup. I highly recommend that people throw it out.”

4. ZYGOPHIALA JAMAICENSIS, A.K.A. FLYSPECK

Flyspeck-AFPPatrickHertzogGettyImages-593265534.jpg

flyspeck mold on green grapes
Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images

This mold is commonly found growing on apples (and grapes), and is also known as flyspeck. Confusingly, flyspeck can be caused by a variety of mold species, varying by region and type of apple. Flyspecked apples are usually snubbed by consumers, despite the fact that their little black bumps are harmless and grow only on the skin. “It’s a hard life, being a plant,” says Hodge. “Every one I can think of has multiple fungal problems.” If you find flyspeck on your fruit at home, console yourself in the knowledge that it came in from the orchard and likely isn’t lurking in your cupboards.

5. FUSARIUM VERTICILLIODES, A.K.A. MAIZE EAR ROT

Ever peeled open an ear of corn and found a patch of pink sliming the kernels? That’s Fusarium verticilliodes, part of a huge genus that produces some truly terrible mycotoxins. It loooooves both the sweet corn you buy at the market and the field corn that’s manufactured into corn chips and fake-meat patties. And it can survive processing to cause things like estrogenic effects and immune suppression. Hence, Fusarium is highly regulated to try to keep it out of our food supply. And oh yeah, some species have also been used to make biological warfare agents.

6. BOTRYTIS CINEREA, A.K.A. NOBLE ROT FUNGUS

Fluffy grey Botrytis cinerea will gladly sink its spores into the strawberries in your fruit bowl. It’s not particularly toxic, says Hodge, but it can gobble up fruit with lightening speed. It comes in with your berries from the field, where damp conditions make it hard to eradicate. The upside: This mold species is also known as “noble rot.” When it turns up (uninvited) on grapes in vineyards, it dries them out and concentrates their flavor; the grapes can then be used to make sweet wines like Sauternes (from France) and Tokaji Aszú (from Hungary and Slovakia).

7. ASPERGILLUS NIGER, A.K.A. BLACK MOLD

“This one is interesting,” says Hodge. “It can grow on onions—it shows up as black flecks between the layers. And it can also cause ear infections in humans.” But its talents don’t end there; Aspergillus niger also causes you to exclaim, “Ooh, lemons,” when you drink certain manufactured “lemony” beverages. (“No,” corrects Hodge. “It’s mold.”) Niger’s sister, Aspergillus oryzae, is used to make miso and soy sauce. And another, the parrot-green Aspergillus flavus, which favors peanuts and tree nuts, “is the worst fungus I can think of,” says Hodge. Its crimes against humanity include causing liver cancer.

8. DIPLODIA NATALENSIS

Most of us have reached into the vegetable drawer and pulled out a green lemon (thanks for nothing, Penicillium digitatum). But Diplodia natalenis is responsible for an unattractive darkening—and sometimes, mush-ening—of a lemon’s stem end. This mold is also devious; it lives inside the dead wood of trees back at the grove and doesn’t actually show itself until the fruit’s already been picked, packed, and stored in your refrigerator.

9. MUCOR CIRCINELLOIDES

This little guy (gal? Other? Molds can produce spores asexually and often sexually, too) is something of a generalist. It likes fruit, vegetables, and dairy. To wit: a virulent subspecies of Mucor circinelloides was implicated in a nausea- and vomit-inducing episode that affected more than 200 people who’d eaten some moldy yogurt back in 2013. How virulent? Tests showed that it could survive passage through the digestive tract of lab mice. But how it got into the yogurt in the first place remains a mystery.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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