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An interview with Nicholas P. Money

Frank Diller

In 2002, Nicholas P. Money brought mushrooms, mold and mycology out of the damp shadows in his critically acclaimed debut essay collection, Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard. In his new book, Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores, he turns his attention to the natural history of toxic mold.

Assistant book review editor Frank Diller asked the mycologist from Miami University in Ohio to discuss his attraction to mold, the state of his field and the challenge of providing a balanced account of such a sensationalized subject.

What is one thing that you would like people outside of your field to know about mycology?

Nicholas P. MoneyClick to Enlarge Image

That the science of mycology is a lot more interesting than figuring out the optimum concentration of bleach for cleaning a shower stall. Fungi are a distinctive and spellbinding product of Earth's evolutionary history.

Does the world need more mycologists?

Yes, absolutely. There are very few professional mycologists who have the training to identify mushrooms in forest ecosystems, bracket fungi growing on timber, species that parasitize insects, pathogens that devastate crops, and the fungi that infect humans. There is a chronic lack of scientists specializing in the study of fungi from a cell-biological and molecular perspective. Mycologists have put names to 74,000 fungal species, but estimates suggest that more than a million await discovery. This means that we are missing significant opportunities to learn about a major chunk of life.

Would you recommend mycology as a career to a young scientist?

Given the shortage of mycologists working in academia and industry, I believe that there are all kinds of opportunities for young biologists to explore intriguing scientific questions by working with fungi. With so many clever people already looking at flies and worms, perhaps there is a greater chance for someone beginning a research career to discover something really novel by studying how fungi work.

What's really exciting about the field?

Experimental mycology has entered a new developmental phase in which questions about when and how different fungi evolved can be addressed through genomic research. Besides the inherent interest in this type of archaeological work, the information obtained from these studies has highlighted the value of well-conceived experiments using more traditional biochemical and physiological approaches. In other words, this is a real opportunity for cross-fertilization of approaches and techniques. Microscopists are helping molecular geneticists, ecologists are listening to cell biologists, and so forth. Computer modeling of fungal development is another area that is very exciting. I have read recently about cyber-mushrooms "grown" on computer screens by British mycologists using some surprisingly straightforward mathematical tools. This goes way beyond the pretty but ultimately unimportant correspondences between fractal patterns and fungal colonies that were popular a decade ago; the new work is telling us unexpected things about the way that beautiful structures like fly agarics and boletes develop in nature. I wish I were a better mathematician.

When and why did you decide that you wanted to be a mycologist?

I decided to become a mycologist, rather than a mathematician, as an undergraduate at Bristol University in the 1980s. In particular, a series of introductory lectures on fungi left me awestruck. Until then, I had some vague idea that fungi were an unusual type of plant. I had no idea that their cells were constructed in a unique way, nor that fungi grow and reproduce in a decidedly unplantlike fashion. Since then, I have been hooked on mushrooms (so to speak).

A definitive scientific correlation has yet to be established between indoor mold and illness. But, you note, "Press coverage has certainly made many people terrified by the first hint of mold growth and has led to bogus cause-and-effect explanations for a diversity of ailments." Why do you think the media—and many unscrupulous entrepreneurs, offering questionable approaches to mold inspection and prevention—have latched onto the sensational elements of toxic mold?

The concept of an often-invisible potential killer in every home in America has a lot going for it as a news story and as a catalyst for redistributing wealth in the courtroom. In my new book I contend that this is the best story in mycology since potato blight.

Do you think it's possible to provide a balanced account of the facts and exaggerations of toxic mold without succumbing to the hype that surrounds the subject? (After all, your very rational, informative book is titled Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores. )

The book's title was designed to attract people who would not otherwise entertain the idea of reading a book about fungi, so to this extent I'm guilty of hype. On the other hand, I did try hard to offer a balanced account of the issue. I went into the project with a very open mind and emerged with a message that cannot be communicated in a single headline. Here are four important points: (i) a few mold species produce some very nasty toxins; (ii) prolific growth of these organisms in water-damaged homes may sometimes pose a significant threat to human health; (iii) some scientists and attorneys are guilty of exaggerating the degree of danger; and (iv) other scientists and attorneys are guilty of minimizing the potential hazards of mold exposure. In addition to investigating the mycotoxins produced by molds and their putative use as biological weapons, Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores offers a mini mycology course to explain what molds are (microscopic fungi), and I also discuss allergies caused by exposure to mold spores. Something for everyone. I'm sure I'd sell more copies if the book's message was "Run for your lives, we're surrounded by lethal spores!" But my scientific training forced me to adopt a more rational tone.

One chapter in the book focuses on a Cleveland hospital that, during the 1990s, admitted several children from low-income families who suffered from lung bleeding while living in water-damaged homes. Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted the possibility that black mold in these homes, identified as Stachybotrys, may have been a cause for the preponderance of this otherwise rare condition. But a CDC panel later questioned the validity of its own agency's research in an unsigned report. You write, "I find it difficult to convince myself that the CDC panel offered an entirely objective assessment of the work in Cleveland." Why do you think the CDC retracted its initial findings?

The CDC had good reason to question the validity of the initial studies on the cases of lung bleeding in Cleveland, but I find it difficult to understand why they were so critical—damning, in fact—of the researchers who worked very hard to figure out what was going on. This is an intriguing medical detective story, and we don't have an answer yet. So far, links between mold exposure and a whole range of illnesses are hypothetical: They are being investigated. Perhaps the CDC was influenced by the potential repercussions of the Cleveland study and felt that some backpedaling would be useful. The insurance industry, which invests tens of millions of dollars lobbying politicians every year, is certainly alarmed by the idea that indoor molds may injure homeowners.

What are the potential consequences of a government agency weighing in on this issue?

More recently, the CDC's position has been supported by a National Academy of Sciences report that concludes that the link between mold and various illnesses is unproven. As I have said, this is certainly true. But consider for a moment that it took decades for researchers to pin down the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The only sensible thing to do with indoor mold is to continue the research. But the influence of the CDC and NAS isn't going to help people like me obtain support for work on Stachybotrys.

In an early aside, you describe how it took you a while to notice the mold growing on your writing shed: "You would think that I would have looked more closely, but then I am the professor of botany known for shutting his own head in a car door and, most recently, for allowing a flask filled with boiling horse feces to explode in the laboratory." Would you care to elaborate on either incident? (Why does a mycologist boil horse feces? Couldn't you just warm it up?)

Horse dung is a superb food source for growing certain kinds of fungi. In the past, I have had students complain about my insistence that they work with it, so I have to do this myself.  The dung is boiled to kill bacteria. If you leave a flask on a hotplate and go for a cup of coffee, then the scene in the laboratory upon your return can be very alarming. Having said this, shutting my head in my car door was even more distressing.

When you decided to write Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores, you put aside your research on the organisms growing in your backyard pond. Do you plan to return to the pond for the next book? If so, can you offer any previews?

I have a provisional title for my next book: Rotten Planet: A Fungal History of Earth. This will be my third and probably my last book on fungi, and then I may get to the pond story. Rotten Planet is concerned with fungal diseases of trees and crop plants that have reshaped entire landscapes, devastated civilizations and, in short, made things difficult for Homo sapiens and plenty of other species. Consider how many American cities have a Chestnut Street or an Elm Street: Chestnuts and elms haven't grown in most cities for decades. The spread of chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease was startling. The chestnut was a dominant tree in American hardwood forests until the introduction of the pathogen on infected trees from Japan. The blight was first identified at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, then spread in a 300–mile–wide band along the Appalachians until almost every tree was infected by the 1950s. Dutch elm disease was first encountered in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1930, and by the 1970s had infected elms from coast to coast. Outside the United States there are lots of interesting diseases. In 1975, jarrah dieback was estimated to have affected 282,000 hectares of Australian forest and was expanding at an astonishing rate of 20,000 hectares per year. In affected areas, entire plant communities are destroyed, with the loss of 75 percent of all species in the forest. This Australian disease continues to spread, but this ecological holocaust has been virtually ignored by the international scientific community.  Sudden oak death is a new disease, discovered in California, that is very disturbing. It is caused by a microorganism called a water mold, related to the species that caused the potato famine in Ireland. I'm having a lot of fun working on this book this summer and am learning a great deal about the biological history of my own area of Ohio.

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