Mushrooms Can Make It Rain—And a Lot More

Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images
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.

15 Gripping Facts About Galileo

Getty Images
Getty Images

Albert Einstein once said that the work of Galileo Galilei “marks the real beginning of physics.” And astronomy, too: Galileo was the first to aim a telescope at the night sky, and his discoveries changed our picture of the cosmos. Here are 15 things that you might not know about the father of modern science, who was born February 15, 1564.

1. There's a reason why Galileo Galilei's first name echoes his last name.

You may have noticed that Galileo Galilei’s given name is a virtual carbon-copy of his family name. In her book Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel explains that in Galileo’s native Tuscany, it was customary to give the first-born son a Christian name based on the family name (in this case, Galilei). Over the years, the first name won out, and we’ve come to remember the scientist simply as “Galileo.”

2. Galileo Galilei probably never dropped anything off the leaning tower of Pisa. 

With its convenient “tilt,” the famous tower in Pisa, where Galileo spent the early part of his career, would have been the perfect place to test his theories of motion, and of falling bodies in particular. Did Galileo drop objects of different weights, to see which would strike the ground first? Unfortunately, we have only one written account of Galileo performing such an experiment, written many years later. Historians suspect that if Galileo taken part in such a grand spectacle, there would be more documentation. (However, physicist Steve Shore did perform the experiment at the tower in 2009; I videotaped it and put the results on YouTube.)

3. Galileo taught his students how to cast horoscopes.

It’s awkward to think of the father of modern science mucking about with astrology. But we should keep two things in mind: First, as historians remind us, it’s problematic to judge past events by today’s standards. We know that astrology is bunk, but in Galileo’s time, astrology was only just beginning to disentangle from astronomy. Besides, Galileo wasn’t rich: A professor who could teach astrological methods would be in greater demand than one who couldn’t.

4. Galileo didn't like being told what to do.

Maybe you already knew that, based on his eventual kerfuffle with the Roman Catholic Church. But even as a young professor at the University of Pisa, Galileo had a reputation for rocking the boat. The university’s rules demanded that he wear his formal robes at all times. He refused—he thought it was pretentious and considered the bulky gown a nuisance. So the university docked his pay.

5. Galileo Galilei didn't invent the telescope.

We’re not sure who did, although a Dutch spectacle-maker named Hans Lipperhey often gets the credit (he applied for a patent in the fall of 1608). Within a year, Galileo Galilei obtained one of these Dutch instruments and quickly improved the design. Soon, he had a telescope that could magnify 20 or even 30 times. As historian of science Owen Gingerich has put it, Galileo had managed “to turn a popular carnival toy into a scientific instrument.”

6. A king leaned on Galileo to name planets after him.

Galileo rose to fame in 1610 after discovering, among other things, that the planet Jupiter is accompanied by four little moons, never previously observed (and invisible without telescopic aid). Galileo dubbed them the “Medicean stars” after his patron, Cosimo II of the Medici family, who ruled over Tuscany. The news spread quickly; soon the king of France was asking Galileo if he might discover some more worlds and name them after him.

7. Galileo didn't have trouble with the church for the first two-thirds of his life.

In fact, the Vatican was keen on acquiring astronomical knowledge, because such data was vital for working out the dates of Easter and other holidays. In 1611, when Galileo visited Rome to show off his telescope to the Jesuit astronomers there, he was welcomed with open arms. The future Pope Urban VIII had one of Galileo’s essays read to him over dinner and even wrote a poem in praise of the scientist. It was only later, when a few disgruntled conservative professors began to speak out against Galileo, that things started to go downhill. It got even worse in 1616, when the Vatican officially denounced the heliocentric (sun-centered) system described by Copernicus, which all of Galileo’s observations seemed to support. And yet, the problem wasn’t Copernicanism. More vexing was the notion of a moving Earth, which seemed to contradict certain verses in the Bible.

8. Galileo probably could have earned a living as an artist.

We think of Galileo as a scientist, but his interests—and talents—straddled several disciplines. Galileo could draw and paint as well as many of his countrymen and was a master of perspective—a skill that no doubt helped him interpret the sights revealed by his telescope. His drawings of the Moon are particularly striking. As the art professor Samuel Edgerton has put it, Galileo’s work shows “the deft brushstrokes of a practiced watercolorist”; his images have “an attractive, soft, and luminescent quality.” Edgerton writes of Galileo’s “almost impressionistic technique” more than 250 years before Impressionism developed.

10. Galileo wrote about relativity long before Einstein.

He didn’t write about exactly the same sort of relativity that Einstein did. But Galileo understood very clearly that motion is relative—that is, that your perception of motion has to do with your own movement as well as that of the object you’re looking at. In fact, if you were locked inside a windowless cabin on a ship, you’d have no way of knowing if the ship was motionless, or moving at a steady speed. More than 250 years later, these ideas would be fodder for the mind of the young Einstein.

10. Galileo never married, but that doesn't mean he was alone.

Galileo was very close with a beautiful woman from Venice named Marina Gamba; together, they had two daughters and a son. And yet, they never married, nor even shared a home. Why not? As Dava Sobel notes, it was traditional for scholars in those days to remain single; perceived class difference may also have played a role.

11. You can listen to music composed by Galileo's dad.

Galileo’s father, Vincenzo, was a professional musician and music teacher. Several of his compositions have survived, and you can find modern recordings of them on CD (like this one). The young Galileo learned to play the lute by his father’s side; in time he became an accomplished musician in his own right. His music sense may have aided in his scientific work. With no precision clocks, Galileo was still able to time rolling and falling objects to within mere fractions of a second.

12. His discoveries may have influenced a scene in one of Shakespeare's late plays.

An amusing point of trivia is that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year (1564). By the time Galileo aimed his telescope at the night sky, however, the English playwright was nearing the end of his career. But he wasn’t quite ready to put down the quill: His late play Cymbeline contains what may be an allusion to one of Galileo’s greatest discoveries—the four moons circling Jupiter. In the play’s final act, the god Jupiter descends from the heavens, and four ghosts dance around him in a circle. It could be a coincidence—or, as I suggest in my book The Science of Shakespeare, it could hint at the Bard's awareness of one of the great scientific discoveries of the time.

13. Galileo had some big-name visitors while under house arrest.

Charged with “vehement suspicion of heresy,” Galileo spent the final eight years of his life under house arrest in his villa outside of Florence. But he was able to keep writing and, apparently, to receive visitors, among them two famous Englishmen: the poet John Milton and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

14. Galileo's bones have not rested in peace.

When Galileo died in 1642, the Vatican refused to allow his remains to be buried alongside family members in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica; instead, his bones were relegated to a side chapel. A century later, however, his reputation had improved, and his remains (minus a few fingers) were transferred to their present location, beneath a grand tomb in the basilica’s main chapel. Michelangelo is nearby.

15. Galileo might not have been thrilled with the Vatican's 1992 "apology."

In 1992, under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican issued an official statement admitting that it was wrong to have persecuted Galileo. But the statement seemed to place most of the blame on the clerks and theological advisers who worked on Galileo’s case—and not on Pope Urban VIII, who presided over the trial. Nor was the charge of heresy overturned.

Additional sources: The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo; Galileo's Daughter; The Cambridge Companion to Galileo.

10 Things You Should Know About Asthma

iStock.com/Wojciech Kozielczyk
iStock.com/Wojciech Kozielczyk

To anyone with asthma, the feeling of an attack is unmistakable. Patients have compared an asthma attack's feeling of breathlessness, caused by inflammation in the lungs and airways, to being smothered by a pillow or having an elephant sit on their chest. Medical experts have already figured out some aspects of asthma, like how to diagnose and treat it, but other components, like what causes asthma and how to cure it, remain unclear. From the triggers people encounter at work to the connection to allergies, here are some facts about asthma symptoms and treatments you should know.

1. Asthma attacks are related to allergies.

The physical process that occurs when someone has a sneezing fit during pollen season is similar to what happens during an asthma attack. But while the former causes discomfort, the latter produces potentially life-threatening symptoms. When people with allergies are exposed to an allergen like pollen, they produce antibodies that bind to that allergen. This signals the body to release the chemicals that cause allergic symptoms. In most people, the symptoms are limited to the head, such as a runny nose or watery eyes, but in people with asthma, they're felt in the lungs. If the lungs are inflamed, the airways that carry air swell up and fill with mucus, constricting airflow and causing common asthma symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Such asthma attacks can be fatal when patients can’t get enough air to their lungs.

2. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic disease among children.

Asthma is common, affecting 25 million in the U.S. alone, and of those patients, about 7 million are children. Most people with the disease develop it during childhood. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic illness among kids, and each year, students miss 13.8 million school days because of it.

3. Asthma may be inherited.

Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes asthma, but they know it sometimes runs in families. A 2010 study found that people with one parent with the condition were nearly twice as likely to have it themselves, and people with a parent and a grandparent with asthma were four times more likely to develop it. Because asthma is connected to allergies, a genetic disposition toward allergies, known as atopy, may explain some inherited asthma cases.

4. Asthma is surprisingly easy to diagnose.

One of the simplest ways to diagnose asthma is through a lung function test. If a patient is reporting asthma symptoms (coughing, chest tightness, a feeling of not getting enough air), their doctor may check the strength of their exhalations before and after having them use an inhaler. If their breathing improves with the medicine, they likely have asthma. An X-ray of the patient’s chest can also be used to reach an asthma diagnosis.

5. Kids who grow up around germs are less likely to have asthma.

A person’s environment early in life may also play a role in whether or not they develop asthma. People who grew up in rural areas, around animals, and in large families are less likely to have asthma than those who did not. One possible explanation is the hygiene hypothesis: According to this theory, kids who were exposed to germs and pathogens while their immune systems were developing are better equipped to deal with allergens, while kids who were sheltered from germs may be more likely to have an exaggerated (and in the case of asthma, potentially deadly) immune response to harmless substances. The hygiene hypothesis hasn’t been proven, however, and it’s definitely not an excuse to expose children to infections in an attempt to strengthen them against asthma attacks in the future.

6. Asthma triggers are everywhere.

To manage their symptoms, doctors tell asthma patients to limit exposure to their triggers when possible. Common asthma triggers include irritants and allergens like dust, tobacco smoke, car exhaust, mold, pet dander, and smoke from burning wood. Triggers that don’t come from the environment, like colds, sinus infections, acid reflux, and hyperventilation brought on by stress, can be even harder to avoid.

7. There's one asthma trigger patients shouldn't avoid.

Physical activity causes fast breathing, which can provoke asthma attacks in some people with the condition. There’s even a type of asthma called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction that specifically describes people who suffer from these kinds of attacks. But the risks of living a sedentary lifestyle outweigh those of exercising carefully, even with asthma. Instead of cutting out cardio altogether, doctors work with patients to come up with an exercise plan that’s safe for them. This might include warming up and using an inhaler before working out, practicing cool-down activities afterward, and wearing scarves or masks to limit exposure to irritants that may also trigger asthma symptoms.

8. There are two types of asthma treatments.

Long-term controllers and quick-relievers are the two types of medications used to treat asthma. Immediate medicines like short-acting beta agonists and anticholinergics relax muscles in the airways when flare-ups occur, and they’re typically administered directly to the lungs with an inhaler. Long-term medications help keep asthma symptoms under control over time are taken as often as once a day, regardless of whether symptoms are present. They include inhaled long-acting beta agonists and corticosteroids, biologic injections, and theophylline and leukotriene modifier pills and liquids. All of these medications suppress asthma symptoms by either relaxing muscles, reducing swelling, or preventing inflammation in the airways.

9. Asthma can be an occupational hazard.

Occupational asthma develops when a patient’s triggers come from their work environment. According to the National Institutes of Health, wood dust, grain dust, animal dander, fungi, and various chemicals are some of the most common asthma triggers that patients encounter in the workplace. Bakers, farmers, laboratory workers, millers, and woodworkers predisposed to asthma are all at higher risk.

10. There's no cure for asthma, but symptoms can lessen over time.

Though asthma is treatable, there’s no cure for the chronic illness. Some people, however, do appear to grow out of the condition after suffering from it as kids. It’s possible for asthma symptoms to become less severe and go into remission as patients get older, but once someone is diagnosed with asthma, the risk of an episode never goes away completely. Changes in hormone levels are a factor that could possibly bring asthma symptoms back in patients who haven’t experienced an attack in years.

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