whiskey creature

19 Jul

Electron microscope image of the whiskey fungus. Photo: Caren Alpert.

The story of not just a new species, but a completely new genus of fungi, first discovered devouring the trees, street signs, and houses in the Canadian town of Lakeshore, Ontario:

The air outside a distillery warehouse smells like witch hazel and spices, with notes of candied fruit and vanilla—warm and tangy—mellow. It’s the aroma of fresh cookies cooling in the kitchen while a fancy cocktail party gets out of hand in the living room.

Wired‘s Adam Rogers writes about the black stuff radiating from the whiskey distillery and how the company’s fears had been put to rest by a team of researchers who concluded the fungus was a common environmental type, “in no way the distillery’s fault.” But, James Scott, an old-fashioned mycologist who fancied legacy knowledge instead of newer, chemistry-based ways of identifying fungus species, took a second look.

When he arrived at the warehouse, the first thing he noticed (after “the beautiful, sweet, mellow smell of aging Canadian whiskey,” he says) was the black stuff. It was everywhere—on the walls of buildings, on chain-link fences, on metal street signs, as if a battalion of Dickensian chimney sweeps had careened through town. “In the back of the property, there was an old stainless steel fermenter tank,” Scott says. “It was lying on its side, and it had this fungus growing all over it. Stainless steel!” The whole point of stainless steel is that things don’t grow on it. … Scott found the black fungus as far as a mile away from the warehouse. And the closer it was, the thicker it grew, clinging like ashy cotton candy to walls, rooftops, even garden furniture. Under a microscope, it looked to be a mè9lange of different species, but much of it was thick-walled, rough-skinned stuff he’d never seen before. It looked like poorly hewn barrels, strung together end to end.

In the lab though, the stuff just wouldn’t grow like it did in the town. He figured he knew what it wanted.

Making growth media for fungi is really just feeding them a dish they like to eat. So, on a hunch, Scott bought a bottle of Canadian Club. “I put maybe a shot of whiskey in a liter of agar and filled the petri plates with it,” Scott says. “That made it grow a hell of a lot faster.”

Eventually, Scott would discover, via a wild goose chase that led him all the way back to 1872, that this fungus had been discovered around distilleries in Cognac but that it had been mislabeled. The fungus did feed off the “angels’ share,” a winemaker’s term for the small amounts of vaporous alcohol vented during fermentation. By the end, Scott had made a major discovery and it seemed like as good a time as any to end on a high note. But he had more questions.

How did the mold use the angels’ share? A genetic analysis showed that it was only distantly related to cellar fungus, and researchers at a Department of Energy genomics lab—always looking for potential new ways to turn plants into ethanol for biofuel—added Baudoinia to their list of fungi-to-do. Physiological studies suggested that the ethanol helps the fungus produce heat-shock proteins, protective against temperature extremes, which might explain how it can survive the wide range of temperatures in habitats from Cognac to Canada to Kentucky. Even weirder, how does a fungus that’s millions of years old, older than Homo sapiens, find a near-perfect ecological niche amid stuff people have been making for only a couple of centuries?

That last is perhaps the most interesting question of all. Scott, now a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, works everyday in search of the answer.

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