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Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

Mushrooms Can Make It Rain—And a Lot More

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Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images
A fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) fungus grows in the northwestern French city of Thorigne-Fouillard. With its red cap and white spots, the fly agaric is one of the most iconic and distinctive of fungi, renowned for its toxicity and hallucinogenic properties. Image credit: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to the kingdom Fungi: the not-quite-plant, not-quite-animal organisms that have existed for somewhere between 760 million and 1 billion years and somehow have managed to remain full of mysteries. In one of their latest reveals, the fungi have presented us with yet another mysterious trait: They seem to be affecting the weather surrounding their habitats, scientists have found.

In other words, these mostly earth-dwelling organisms can stimulate rain in the atmosphere.

And they can do a lot more than that. Fungi come in all shapes and forms and affect humans and the planet in myriad ways. Whether you’re a mycophagist with exceptional taste for exotic mushrooms, a beer enthusiast, a sufferer of athlete’s foot, a farmer whose crops are assaulted by rust fungus, or even someone who has never given a single thought to the kingdom Fungi—you’ve crossed paths with them. Yet, scientists estimate they've discovered fewer than 10 percent of all fungal species, and researchers continue to learn new things about their origins, life spans, and relationship with plants and animals.

The finding that these organisms can affect the weather has raised questions about how they could be employed to help us control the weather and what impact they might have on the climate more broadly.

THE OTHER KIND OF MUSHROOM CLOUDS

It all started with sugar—mannitol, to be precise. This sugar alcohol is found in strawberries, pumpkins, candies, and cough drops, among other things. It’s common enough in food products, but scientists initially couldn’t figure out what it was doing in the atmosphere—especially above rainforests. Then they realized the sugar was clinging to spores that had been released in vast quantities above the forests; a single gilled mushroom can release as many as 30,000 spores every second. That, combined with prior research, got fungal biologist Nicholas Money of Miami University and his colleagues wondering about what else those spores did in the atmosphere. Was it possible the spores from mushrooms were actually seeding clouds?

Although “seeding” often describes human-engineered attempts to control the weather, clouds really do need condensation nuclei to form precipitation. Before moisture can form rain, snow, sleet or hail, it needs to form water droplets. In a process known as “super-cooling,” water stays liquid even at temperatures well below 0ºC and remains vapor until it comes in contact with a solid “seed.” This can be a speck of dust, a crystal of ice—or a mushroom spore.

But before Money could know whether spores could act as seeds for rain formation, he first needed to understand the mushrooms’ spore dispersal methods.

“Beautiful feats of evolutionary design can be observed in the fungi,” Money told mental_floss. “They’ve got ways of moving that nothing else in the world utilizes. They use squirt guns that squirt spores into the air. They have a snap-buckling device that launches a massive ball of spores that can travel a distance of many meters. Six meters. Astonishing for a microorganism. They have a mechanism based on the explosive formation of gas bubbles in their cells."

In the case of the gilled mushrooms Money was studying, the spores are propelled by the displacement of water droplets. As one droplet forms and slides down the spore to join a second droplet, the spore shoots into the air from the sudden shift in weight. Having seen water condense around the spore in the dispersal process, Money predicted new droplets would continue to condense even after the spore was airborne. Research in the lab showed that hypothesis to be true.

“Mushrooms are controlling the local weather patterns where there are really high numbers of mushroom spores—not only in rainforests, but also forests in the Northern Hemisphere,” Money said. “It’s not that mushrooms are the sole contributors to rainfall, but their spores may actually stimulate it.” In addition to helping the forest, producing rain is a nice trick for the fungi; they need humid conditions to flourish.

MICROBIAL CLIMATE CONTROL

Rainmaking fungus sounds like good news for the climate, but it’s not the full story of fungi’s effect on climate. Saprotrophic fungi—a group that decomposes a variety of carbon sources, including petroleum, leaf litter, wood, and food products—permeate these plants and materials to unlock nutrients. During the process, they convert carbon into carbon dioxide. This lignocellulose decomposition—meaning the breakdown of lignin and cellulose in the cell walls of plants—is the world’s largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, surpassing CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels by a factor of 10. This isn’t to say fungi are the drivers of climate change; in the past, the release of carbon dioxide was balanced by absorption of the gas by plants and photosynthetic microbes.

And it turns out some fungi are helping those plants and microbes absorb and store even more CO2. When talking about climate change, most people immediately think of carbon in the atmosphere. But there’s actually much more carbon in the soil. Scientists estimate there are around 2500 billion tons of carbon in the soil, compared with only 800 billion tons in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and animal life.

One of the main ways carbon moves into and is stored in the soil is through mycorrhizal fungi, which has a symbiotic relationship with trees. The fungi, which fit broadly into three families, live on tree roots and take carbon from the tree while providing it with nitrogen, phosphorous, water, and micronutrients. A study that looked at the mycorrhizal relationship found that the less common fungi (ectomycorrhizas and ericoid mycorrhizas) help soil store up to 70 percent more carbon than soil filled with the more common mycorrhizal communities. They do this by absorbing more nitrogen, which in turn limits the activity of microorganisms that normally act as decomposers returning carbon to the atmosphere. What this means is that certain fungal types could potentially be harnessed to lock away more carbon—and keep it out of the atmosphere.

“There has been some work looking at bioengineering these fungi,” Greg Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation vice president of science at the Chicago Botanic Garden, told mental_floss. He says the goal is to create "a sort of super-mycorrhizal fungi” that could help soil store more carbon than it would do without these specific fungi. But you might run the risk of losing the lesser-understood benefits of fungal biodiversity, Mueller added.

The other problem is mycologists just don’t know what all is out there in the soil. Based on prior sampling, scientists have found there’s more fungal life than anything else—but as for what the fungi do and how they function, there hasn’t been enough collected yet.

“It’s like there’s this big jar of jelly beans of different colors,” Mueller said. “We go in and grab a handful, but we haven’t gotten many colors yet. So far they’re distinct, but we might get repeat colors eventually.”

FUNGI OF THE FUTURE

Given how widespread fungi are, there are potentially numerous applications for bioengineering them to benefit the planet. In addition to harnessing fungi to store more carbon in the soil, scientists have suggested using mycorrhizal fungi to boost crop yields by providing the food plants with extra nutrients. This bio-fertilizer could reduce farmers’ need to use phosphorous fertilizers, which disrupt aquatic life and can cause deadly algal blooms.

The mycorrhizal fungi can also help scientists study climate change and monitor how shifting temperatures are affecting different types of forests. Using satellite imagery, a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was able to detect the hidden network of fungi living among the trees. They discovered that the type of mycorrhizal fungi living with the trees impacts when the trees start growing leaves and when they reach peak greenness. By monitoring changes in these forests, scientists will be able to deduce how each type of fungi reacts to shifts in the climate.

But there’s also a chance that fungi will do as much harm as good. As temperatures warm, the rate at which certain fungal diseases kill plants and animals is rising. The fungal disease called white-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats, and the skin fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) attacks hundreds of species of amphibians around the world.

“Pathogens we’re seeing may become more of a problem because the trees that they attack are being stressed by climate change. What was once a nuisance might become a more important pathogen,” Mueller said.

Money takes an even bleaker view of the problem of climate change. “The biosphere is dependent on microorganisms,” he said. “But I don’t think mushrooms will save the planet, and I would say that most forcibly. The planet is changing, and the biggest philosophical challenge is how we respond to the fact that we damaged things and how we can restore things—if we can.”

Fungi are undoubtedly influential in ways most of us rarely consider. From seeding rain clouds to helping soil soak up carbon, these microbial life forms are having real and powerful impacts on the world—and human activity is having equally important impacts on them. The difficult task ahead of us is to better understand these interactions and whether they offer positive or negative effects on the planet. And while we wait for the scientists to do more research, we should all appreciate the invisible world beneath our feet—and above our heads.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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science
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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