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Death By Fungus, and Other Fun Facts About Fungal Friends and Foes

This Generation Anthropocene episode highlights oft overlooked organisms that may help us better understand human impacts

Doomsday mushrooms? (Spinkle/iStock)
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Human interactions with the planet come in all shapes and sizes, which is why even the most humble creatures deserve a hearty dose of scientific attention. Some of the most overlooked organisms in everyday life may be key to understanding our relationship with the planet and finding innovative ways to build a sustainable future.

This episode from the Generation Anthropocene archives looks at two of the most ubiquitous but often ignored groups of living things: fungi and trees. Stanford biologist Kabir Peay and Hannah Black kick off the show with a list of five amazing facts about fungi.

"Just in terms of numbers of species and biodiversity, current estimates are that there’s somewhere between maybe one and ten million species of fungi on the planet," says Peay. "And just to put that in perspective, there are probably something like 300,000 described species of plants, 50,000 species of vertebrate animals, and maybe a million species of insects."

While you might already be familiar with fungal benefits, from penicillin to beer yeast, Peay notes that less friendly microbes may be the ones to put an end to the Anthropocene—fungi have caused some of the most devastating famines of the past, and as humans unwittingly move soil and spores around the world, varieties that can resist common anti-fungal treatments could spread, with devastating consequences for our food supply. Listen to the full episode for more:

At the other end of the size spectrum, Caitlin Woolsey gets the scoop on the decline of enormous yellow cedars in southeastern Alaska. She talks with Stanford field ecologist Lauren Oakes, who has been clambering through the region's old-growth temperate rainforests to study the front lines of climate change.

"There’s some pictures of me climbing up on spruce roots twice my height … and I’m six feet tall! So we're talking a pretty big tree," Oakes says. The trouble is that Alaska is warming at an alarming rate, and changes in precipitation patterns are causing the yellow cedars to die off, which changes the whole structure of the forest. The loss of the cedars is in turn affecting local Alaskans, who not only rely on the forest for survival, but also have deep cultural attachments to the signature trees.

As a bonus, this episode features a conversation with Kaustubh Thirumalai, an expert in paleoclimate at the University of Texas at Austin. Thirumalai is part of an effort called Ocean2k, which examines a wide cross-section of marine science to tease out climatic changes over the past 2,000 years and put the most recent warming in historical context. Part of the project involves using corals to pinpoint the start of accelerated warming as a global phenomenon.

"It's not just where the drumbeat originates, but also where that drumbeat is echoed and then by virtue of that echo, it starts a new drumbeat somewhere else," says Thirumalai. "So it's like you can actually pinpoint where and when you started this warming and how that propagates throughout the globe."

Hear more about the Ocean2k project, including some initial findings, in the full audio clip above. 

About Victoria Jaggard

Victoria Jaggard is the science editor for Smithsonian.com. Her writing has appeared in Chemical & Engineering News, National Geographic, New Scientist and elsewhere.

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