Behold the Weird Beauty of Mold

Scientists aren’t quite sure why mold comes in so many colors

Philipp Hympendahl/Corbis

Whether you find them icky or fascinating, you’ve got to admit — mold and fungi come in many different colors. But why are there so many shades of mold? Popular Science’s Daniel Engber writes that the jury’s still out on how mold gets its rainbow tints.

Oregon State University researcher Sara Robinson told Engber that that in different parts of the country, mold and fungi takes on different hues. However, it’s not entirely clear why mold grows green in the Pacific Northwest and orange in the Amazon, he writes.

Robinson tells Engber that some molds use color as a way to protect themselves from their enemies, such as UV light and other fungi. And other biologists, writes Engber, have been studying what happens to fungi when the melanin that gives them color is removed. They’ve learned that mold without color is “pathetic” — severely hampered by their huelessness.

Here’s one clue that color imbues mold with both beauty and skills: in 2007, scientists studying black mold found in the damaged reactor at Chernobyl discovered that melanin-rich Cryptococcus is actually able to “eat” radiation. The mold uses radioactivity as its energy source, leading scientists to speculate that dark mold could someday be grown in space and feed astronauts.

Another brightly-colored mold superstar is Neurospora crassa, which produces red spores on bread. Scientists are studying how the mold generates chemicals in the hopes of improving biofuels.

Scientists may not have quite figured out why mold looks so strangely gorgeous. But the how of making magic out of mold is already within reach. And still others see other kinds of potential in all that color and texture: Wired’s Daniela Hernandez reports that creative minds like Estonian photographer Heikki Leis are turning moldy veggies into stunning art.

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