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Science communication that breaks the mold

by Brianna Barbu
October 15, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 37


Fall fun(gi)

A lab bench with a pumpkin spice latte, a tin of pumpkin pie spice, a bottle of diluted pumpkin puree, and stacks of petri dishes.
Credit: Matt Kasson
The spice of life: Fungi thrive on all sorts of organic matter, including pumpkin spice lattes.

We’re now well into the season of pumpkin spice everything: baked goods, scented candles, and of course, the classic latte.

It was while sipping one of these cozy coffee drinks in September that mycologist Matt Kasson began to wonder: If humans enjoy pumpkin spice so much, what do fungi, famous for feasting on organic substances, think of the ubiquitous fall flavor? So he designed an experiment to find out.

Dubbed #WholeLatteDecay on Twitter, Kasson’s investigation looked at how 17 species of fungi fared when their growth media contained each of three pumpkin spice food sources—pumpkin pie spice from the supermarket, canned pumpkin puree that he added pie spices to, and a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. The goal, he tells Newscripts, was to show off the “unparalleled” decomposition abilities that make fungi essential parts of an ecosystem.

Kasson chose fungi from his lab at West Virginia University representing a variety of ecological niches and compared their growth and spore production in the different media over the next few weeks, using plain potato dextrose agar as a control.

According to Kasson’s Twitter updates on the experiment, most of the fungi grew well on the sugar-rich pumpkin puree and thrived on the even sweeter pumpkin spice latte. Fittingly, the scourge of his pumpkin patch, Athelia rolfsii, seemed happiest when its growth medium was more pumpkin than latte. “It turns out that fungus can tell real pumpkin from the imitations,” he says. Starbucks’s pumpkin spice lattes have technically included real pumpkin since 2015, but only a minuscule amount—the drink’s flavor comes mostly from synthetic versions of spice compounds.

The relatively nutrient-poor spice-only diet was the least appetizing for the fungi. But a few of the more generalist species were determined to make it work. Kasson noticed that their growth in the pumpkinless medium was often preceded by a color change, indicating that the fungi were chemically sprucing up the place before settling in.

This isn’t Kasson’s first foray into Twitter-friendly mycology experiments. He was also the brains behind Operation #MoldyTwinkie and #FungalPeeps. “I like to do these kinds of science communication projects that really meet people where they are,” like the kitchen or the coffee shop, he says. Plus, cooking up pumpkin-​spiced agar made his lab smell amazing.


Mold musical

Performers on a stage. One person is playing dead, while another laments over him, next to two people waving their arms.
Credit: Robin Mair
Arts and (microbial) culture: The Mould That Changed the World also features two dancers portraying bacteria.

For those who would rather hear melodies about moldy metabolites than share a latte with fungi, your time has come. The Mould That Changed the World is a musical about the life of Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish physician and microbiologist credited with the discovery of penicillin in 1928, and the rise of superbugs as scientists failed to heed Fleming’s warnings about the potential for bacteria to evolve resistance to it and other antibiotics.

The creative minds at Edinburgh, Scotland–based Charades Theatre partnered with infectious disease doctor Meghan Perry as scientific consultant to create the show. They aimed to educate audiences about the power and pitfalls of antibiotics and the importance of using them responsibly. They thought Fleming and his life story would help audiences become emotionally invested in the problem posed by antibiotic resistance. “It’s about starting a conversation about this issue and getting [audiences] to go away and think about it and maybe examine their own personal actions towards antibiotics,” composer, lyricist, and artistic director Robin Hiley tells Newscripts.

The show recruits its chorus from local scientists and healthcare professionals to perform alongside the main cast of professional actors and dancers. Each group brings its own distinct expertise to the production, Hiley says. For example, chorus members share their knowledge of disease symptoms and how to pronounce the names of the drugs and microbes, and the professional actors help the scientists get used to performing onstage. “That kind of real exchange of knowledge and expertise . . . that’s been my favorite part of the whole project,” producer Jess Conway says.

The show debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2018 and recently returned there before traveling to Glasgow, Scotland. It has now made its way across the pond for its US tour: it is showing in Washington, DC, Oct. 18–23 and in Atlanta Nov. 1–6.

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