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We all know what mold can do to health and property when it pops up.  For this installation of the MoldHold Newsletter, however, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some strange mold facts.  How has mold advanced medicine?  How has it impacted history?  What does it have to do with with the largest living organism?  Read on to find out!

One Thing Mold Won’t Eat

Mold will grow on and consume just about anything it can.  But in 2009, nutritionist Joann Bruso started an experiment to see what mold would do to one of the most identifiable meals in the world:  a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  That March, she bought one, set it on her shelf, and left it there.  A full year later, the hamburger’s meat had shriveled, and its bun was dry and cracked, but there was no mold to be found.  The fries looked as fresh as they had twelve months earlier.  Why was there no decay or decomposition?  That’s probably due to various preservatives included in the food to make distribution easier.

The Mold That Makes You Feel Better

If you took biology in high school, you have probably heard the story about Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery that bacteria wouldn’t grow near a Penicillium rubens colony in his lab.  His version of the story—that the mold found its way to a dish of bacteria through an open window—has been embellished on over time—I actually recall my own biology teacher building the story around a forgotten sandwich.  Today, scientists believe that even Fleming’s account is probably incorrect:  the mold spores were most likely in the petri dish before he ever introduced bacteria to it, but it is true that Penicillin is derived from purified mold.

Good (Moldy) Eats

Usually, when you see mold on your food, that means that it’s well past its prime.  But many different varieties of cheese commonly have mold on their rinds or even marbled throughout.  Bleu cheeses like Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, and Gorgonzola get their well-known blue streaks and unique flavors from mold cultures.  Those molds are actually in the same family as the mold that penicillin is derived from.  In fact, some people who suffer from allergies to penicillin can also be sensitive or allergic to Bleu cheeses.

Mold and the Pharaoh’s Curse

The deaths of twenty-seven archeologists (and one bird) following their removal of King Tut from his tomb in 1923 led people to believe that something sinister was at work in the pyramids.  Bolstered by inscriptions on the tomb threatening potential tomb raiders, belief in a Pharaoh’s Curse spread.  The same thing happened following a similar expedition in the 1970s, in which ten of the twelve archeologists involved died.  The two who lived, as it turns out, wore respirators that protected them against mold.  After testing, it was found that King Tut’s curse was nothing more than the effects of a significant presence of Aspergillus mold in his tomb.  (The bird, for the record, was killed by a cobra.)

Witchcraft and Spore-cery in Salem

Mold’s role as the source of otherworldly panic isn’t limited to Egyptian tombs.  The Salem Witch Trials may also have been the product of mass consumption of mold.  Before wheat and potatoes rose to prominence, rye was a staple in many regional American and European diets.  Some scholars believe that given how much rye was consumed in Salem and the fact that certain molds thrived and went unnoticed in rye crops, those molds—whose symptoms included mental disturbances, hallucinations, seizures, and more—were to blame for the paranoia that otherworldly influences were at work in Massachusetts.  Couple this with the fact that seizures were commonly viewed as a sign of possession at the time, and it’s easy to see how a mold that caused such symptoms could be to blame.

What’s the World’s Largest Living Organism?  

You might think of a whale, or maybe even a colossal redwood tree, but in fact, the largest living organism in the world is a cousin to mold.  Molds are one type of living organism that belongs to the Fungus Kingdom, which also includes mushrooms, lichens, yeasts, and more.  That also includes Armillaria ostoyae which forms colonies on forest floors, living on the roots of plants.  The largest colony of this fungus is in the Blue Mountains of Oregon.  It is larger than 1,600 football fields and is estimated to be 2,400 years old.  That entire four square mile colony belongs to a single genetic strain, making it the largest living organism on Earth.

by Alex LaVelle

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