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Mushrooms Can Make It Rain—And a Lot More

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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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Words
15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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