Writing in Wired, Adam Rogers tells the story of how Canadian mycologist James Scott started his career by tracking down an ancient fungus that had adapted to growing on whiskey fumes and had infested a town around a Hiram Walker warehouse. Relatives of the fungus had been found around Cognac distilleries in 1872, but it had never been systematically studied with modern techniques. It turns out to be an extremophile fungus that can grow on pretty much anything, even stainless steel.
But by then, Scott had become obsessed with discovering how Baudoinia worked. After all, his name is next to it in the books. 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? Presumably somewhere in the world, naturally occurring Baudoinia lives adjacent to naturally fermenting fruit—or maybe it's everywhere, a sluggish loser until it gets a whiff of ethanol. Evolution is full of stories of animals and plants fitting into hyper-specific man-made niches, as if nature somehow got the specs in advance. "It's an urban extremophile," Scott says. Typically we don't think of cities as being particularly extreme environments, but few places on earth get as hot as a rooftop or as dry as the corner of a heated living room. Fungi live in both. Now Scott sees urban extremophile fungi everywhere. The black smudges along roadsides and on old buildings that look like soot, he says, are usually some hardy fungus that tolerates (or loves) diesel fumes, smog, and slightly acidic rain. Baudoinia might have been a bit player on prehuman Earth. But then we came along and built distilleries, Baudoinia's own bespoke microparadises.
The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus
(Image: Need a drink?, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from trippchicago's photostream)