Finally…a deep dive into the Fungi Kingdom. It took me 36 episodes, but we’re finally here thanks to fungi expert Damon Tighe (instagram and iNaturalist). Damon is also a skilled naturalist, photographer and science communicator, biotech educator, and prolific iNaturalist contributor. He has a biology and chemistry degree from Saint Mary’s college, and has years of professional experience in genomics and DNA sequencing, including with the Human Genome Project at the National Lab’s Joint Genome Institute. Damon is also a core member of the California Center for Natural History.
In today’s episode, we attempt to cover the enormous topic of fungi.
Damon describes the basics of fungi – what they are, and how they reproduce. Damon covers the three primary lifestyles that fungi take on – saprophytic, which like to eat dead stuff, parasitic, which like to eat something still alive, and mycorrhizal, where they team up with something – often a plant – to get food.
We spend time discussing fungi and mushrooms that one might encounter, seasonality of their occurrence, how to read the landscape to find mushrooms, and how to identify them. Damon covers some common mushroom myths as well, and whether it is OK to pick mushrooms for identification or general foraging.
Damon also tells us about some fascinating mushroom behaviors, such as how Chicken of the Woods mushrooms tend to fruit in anticipation of rain, and the story of the notorious Deathcap mushroom.
And throughout the episode Damon mentions a number of different species, and I’ve included pictures of several in the show notes. You definitely need to see the California Large Chantrelle!
We wrap up with a good discussion of the convergence of DNA sequencing technology and citizen science. DNA sequencing is now achievable in a home setting at a relatively inexpensive cost, and a community of citizen scientists are driving new discoveries. Thanks to Damon for all of the videos and resources on fungal DNA barcoding below.
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Links To Topics Discussed
People, Events, and Organizations
Alan Rockefeller – well known mycologist that Damon mentions
Barcode the Lake at Lake Merritt, in Oakland, California
SOMA Camp, a mushroom enthusiasts gathering in Sonoma County, California
Books and Other Things
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fungi of Coastal Northern California by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz
Note: links to books are affiliate links
Fungal DNA Barcoding Resources from Damon
EverymanBio – Josh McGinnis’ interest are the under appreciated molds growing everywhere
Sigrid Jakob – president of the NYC Mycological Society – whole lab process
Nuts and bolts breakdown of prices/processes
Damon Tighe – overview of DNA sequencing for the community scientist
Alan Rockefeller – well known amateur mycologist – knows mushrooms inside and out
William Padilla-Brown – one of the few using Oxford Nanopore sequencing in the home lab space
Facebook group dedicated to Fungal Sequencing
Oak Chantrelle, or Large Chantrelle, Cantharellus californicus:
Coyote Brush Rust, Puccinia evadens, that Michael saw on his BioBlitz
Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus speciosus:
Fly Death Fungus, Entomophthora muscae
King Bolete, Boletus edulis:
Opening – Fearless First by Kevin MacLoed
Closing – Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLoed
Both can be obtained from https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/
Transcripts are auto-generated and may have some inaccuracies. Apologies in advance.
[00:00:00] Michael: Damon, thank you for joining me today.
[00:00:01] Damon: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
[00:00:03] Michael: I’ve been following your work for quite a while on nine natural list and Instagram. And I’m definitely excited to have you here and you seem to have so many naturalists interests that you know it, I could see for some people, it might be difficult to pick a topic to focus with you on, but for today, I’m thinking fungi is going to be the topic of choice.
[00:00:25] Damon: Fungis. A great one. It’s definitely the space. I found myself in the most, over the last couple of years. And it’s mainly because it was something I really knew, nothing about, I would say up until about 10 years ago. And then I hit a tip of an iceberg. It was just like, wow, there’s so much to learn here and just going on and on, and just like most fields, the deeper.
And you get, the more you realize you don’t know. And sometimes that just keeps pulling you into.
[00:00:48] Michael: And I’ll tell you what I’m at that point where I really know hardly anything about it. So hopefully you can start to put me on the right path today.
[00:00:57] Damon: I hope so.
[00:00:58] Michael: .
before we jump into the main topic I’d like to hear, where did you grow up and how did you get interested in nature in the first.
[00:01:05] Damon: Yep. I grew up in Klamath falls, Oregon, which is just at the California Oregon border. And so it’s a pretty rural portion of Oregon. And so I was pretty much surrounded by forests. But then around first grade we moved down to Calaveras county in California. And I know when most people they’re not from California, they stays here any place in California.
And they’re like, oh, you must be by the beach and by redwoods and Baywatch. And it’s actually I didn’t see the ocean really until I was probably 14 or 15. And it was a really rural portion of California. We had one stoplight in the entire county, which meant. If I went outside the front door to go do stuff, I was pretty much in nature.
We’re very close to it. It’s it kinda got those meanings really early on just because that’s the environment around me. And then I was lucky that my parents for the most part were not naturalist, but had a fascination with at least plants and birds. And so I picked up a lot through hikes with them and even some backpacking trips with my whole family and early on,
[00:02:02] Michael: So it sounds through continuous exposure, you develop this interest in nature, where there any seminal moments that stay.
[00:02:09] Damon: Probably one of the most seminal moments was a backpacking trip to the Sally keys lakes in the Sierra, Nevada with my grandpa, my uncle and my mom. And I think I was maybe in third grade or fourth grade and it was horrible. I hated it, but it was Seminole because. I think most of the frustration was mainly due to family dynamics and not necessarily the setting.
And so reflecting back X, those are some of the strongest memories I have of having a natural world to some degree. Cause I think there was just so much motion built up in that. And then we have all these family stories of this, short period of time, three days in the mountains, because all we saw all these different things.
There was a black bear that had tracked me for a, when I was up in front of my mom, she was like, I was hiking for awhile and I found your footprints and she’s okay. So he’s up in front of me. And then she’s and about 10 feet later, I realized that were black bear tracks right over your footprints.
And so we had a whole bunch of experiences like that or those three days. And so it’s that, I don’t know, it nature feel more wild and more interesting to. Through just like all of those kinds of dynamics, the family dynamic and just what we saw out there.
[00:03:20] Michael: Yeah, that, that black bear story. That’s, That’s quite the story too.
[00:03:25] Damon: Yeah. And I had no clue was behind me, I guess it wandered off after a while. My mom’s at some point, like the tracks just veered out into the meadow and you just kept going. And she was just like, whew, big sigh of relief as a parent that she has. Okay.
[00:03:38] Michael: Yeah.
Hopefully it was just the black bear deciding. Ah, it’s just a human, I don’t really care too much about humans, So I’ll go on my day. Yeah. And then proceeding from there. How about academic background,
[00:03:50] Damon: So academic background growing up in Calvert county, there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities. As far as work goes, we, as high school, you looking around and going wow, what am I going to do here? There’s working for a dine lumber industry, working in a cement factory, working at the hospital, or basically working in education.
And so those were the options. And then of all those medicine seems the most interesting, it’s all kind of clarity, have a, interest in sciences and this is like applied science. So I started going that direction academically, but then through internships and things like that, I realized I didn’t like clinical settings.
And so I started looking around for what other things could I be doing? Applied sciences. And I ended up in biological research but mainly on cell molecular side of stuff. So I ended up going to college more or less graduating with a degree focused in molecular biology and then ended up in a career in DNA sequencing within the national labs.
And then I’ve moved on to just some biotech stuff, but on the side, always keeping alive all these naturalists interests.
[00:04:53] Michael: Hopefully we’ll have plenty of time to get into this topic, but you’ve been able to converge those areas of interest. It seems with your knowledge in in genetics and then your naturalist interests.
[00:05:04] Damon: Yeah. Yeah. And those are the two things I’ve been, I would’ve never guessed, 20 years ago would have ever converged, but we’re definitely a time where these two disciplines are really paralleling each other and working back and forth very quickly right now, which is fantastic.
[00:05:17] Michael: Exactly. So we’ll work our way to that topic throughout the course of a conversation. Let’s jump in then to, to fungi. So how is it then that you got interested in funding?
[00:05:26] Damon: So I got interested in fungi partly due to a really long backpacking trip. So I did the John Muir trail the summer after I graduated college. And then prior to that, the longest backpacking trip I’d ever done, I think was three days. So you can imagine the preparation difference for three days versus something that usually takes somewhere between 1421 is very different.
I thought I did all of my calculations. But I did not. And so at some point during this trip, we ran out of food and have very much so remember seeing mushrooms on the trail during those hungry days and wondering, I know people eat these organisms, but I know nothing about them. And I’ve heard some are poisonous.
I guess a man, I wish I knew. So when I got back from the trail, I made a declaration. I’m going to, I’m going to figure these out. So that winter, I started looking at mushrooms really for the first time. And at first it was edibility, but then within a season, just cause as soon as I started going and looking, I started seeing this huge diversity and especially in California, they’re equivalent to winter flowers.
There is this huge diversity of what they can look like, colors and things like that. And they perfectly matched the season where I had nothing else going on and I just completely fell head over heels for them. And that’s how I ended up in my college.
[00:06:48] Michael: And I think most people listening have a pretty good sense of at least some types of fungi, but I’d love to hear in, in your own words, what is a fungi? How do you classify.
[00:07:01] Damon: Yeah. So fungis, like when people talk about I’m interested in my college and stuff like that, usually when you talk to her, a general person, what they’re talking about is like, I’m interested in the fun day that I can see because the majority of stuff that we can actually go on a walk and observe, it’s just a pretty small slice of that kingdom.
A lot of that kingdom is bust out the microscope, bust out the molecular tools in order to see that it’s there. But even within that, the, that slice of that came down like the PCO, my seats we usually produce the mushrooms. People think about and ask them, ICT is one of them that produce kind of cup fungi.
Things like morels are asking my seats. It’s like big folded cups. It’s still a huge diversity. Within that. And so if we think about the classification of those two, I spent like most, I would say like my community science time is probably with things that produce fruiting bodies so we can go see in, in the field.
And for the most part, those divisions um, get kind of sliced up based upon like a handful of features within the fruiting bodies, which is interesting because we think about the lifecycle of these organisms. The fruiting body is actually just a really small slice of that, but that’s where a lot of our descriptions and understanding of Fenella calls up the new species comes from is by just looking at the fruiting body.
For anybody that’s not familiar with my college be analogous to, if we only classified say, angiosperms only, I’m looking at their fruit and said, you know, the fruit only has this color, this shape. So we’re going to classify these together. It works for the most part, but then that’s one of those things.
When we get into the molecular biology needed a bit that as we, as that tools can come online, it’s allowed us to see that some of these things that produce a phenotype aren’t always represented or ongoing ways match when you look the molecular data which is something that’s still unfolding, I would say right now.
And it’s been really evolving the way that we look at fungal taxonomy. The big bins are still staying there, but things are definitely still getting arranged all the time.
[00:09:04] Michael: That’s really interesting. And there’s a lot of questions that I would like to try to ask, but I think we need to get in maybe to the life cycle a little bit more to fill out this baseline. So can you tell me about the life cycle of fungi and those that produce mushrooms in particular?
[00:09:19] Damon: Yeah, I think that would be a really helpful to help get a a good look at what’s going on. So if we think about mushroom producing fungi, for the most part, we’ll start at this portion of the lifecycle where we’ve got a spore that’s out there in the world that’s floating around and it lands in some place that is, it’s got the right conditions where to germinate.
And so a spore for the most part has one copy of the genome. At this point, it’ll germinate and it will start to more or less grow out. Small strands. You have cells attaching to cells into these threads that are working their way through a substrate. Now that single spore is producing what we call high fee.
At this point, this high Faye can find other hyphens. So other scores of germinated sprouted started growing out. And when these find each other, they can more or less fuse. And this will produce what we call my ceiling. And my ceiling is really what most of the mushroom producing fungi spend, probably most of their life cycle in this, my Caelian is growing through substrates.
It’s expanding the organism greatly. And then at a certain time due to different factors, it will decide that it is time to produce a fruiting body. I E the mushroom in order to basically go through fungal sex, more or less, and produce more spores to then get itself out there. And this can happen for a number of reasons.
It can be. Due to the substrate being completely run through, it can be seasonal effects like moisture and temperature and things like that. But the cells that are being interwoven up into the fruiting body for the most part, you still don’t have joining of those two different individuals until you get to the passivity of cells.
And so we’re looking at like a Guild mushrooms to be happening in the gills. And so in there you actually have the transfer of genetic material and then the formation of the spores off of that cell body. And then once again, you’re now down to one copy of the genome in each of those scores. Then they go out into the world and those scores can go out into the world in a whole host of different ways.
So fungi have figured out many different ways to use vectors, to move their spores around that’s everything from mammals to insects, to wind and a whole host of things. But we can get into some of those a little bit later.
[00:11:44] Michael: What does It take for a spore to germinate?
[00:11:48] Damon: It really depends upon the species, but in general. So if I’m looking at like in California, where I live a lot of times, it’s the right moisture and the right signals that it’s got the substrated lights around it. So for some fungi it might be, Hey, I’ve landed on a piece of already decane Oak.
And this is my preferred habitat and it’s moist out, okay, I’m going to germinate and start growing into this substrate. And for other ones, it might be that they pass through a digestive system first and got chemically processed, end up in a pile of poop someplace and then get moisture on top of it and go up.
Now, I’m where I want to be. Now I’ll start growing. So just how plants right. Have all of these different factors that may be involved to paint upon their little ecological. Fungi are very similar. As far as their spores go.
[00:12:41] Michael: Yeah, that’s interesting. It is very similar. There are obviously certain plant seeds that have to be, they have to go.
through a digestive system in order for them to germinate. So it’s interesting to hear it’s similar for for fungi spores. And you talked about this process where. The spore germinates, and it starts to send out little strands that eventually fuse and I’d met.
You lost me a little bit with that. Is that with another spore who also germinated and is that necessary to then form the fruiting body or can a singular spore grow and do it on it?
[00:13:16] Damon: So for most mushrooms, they’re going to have to find a, another hyphenated germinated from a different spore in order to be able to produce a fruiting body. Cause you’re going to need two different individuals, basically two different genomes there in order to ultimately go through fungal sex and produce another set of scores.
But this gets really complicated with some fungi because they have to find specific meeting partners. And so some fungi can just be more or less. We could think about it as plus and minus or male, female, if you want to drive it that way. And they like find that opposite one and go, okay, I can meet with you, but it’s not always clear cut like that.
Like one fungus she’s off commune the split Gill. We think has somewhere on the order of 22,000 mating types. And so there’s a wide variety of strains that could find one and go, okay, I’m okay. Meeting with you or, Nope. I’m not compatible with you in order to ultimately produce food and bodies,
[00:14:14] Michael: Wow. So with 22,000 types then is it understood what combinations work I’m guessing? No.
[00:14:22] Damon: not fully, there’s definitely people working on it, it’s really head-scratching. And I think it also makes it really complicated, especially when you talk about species concept sometimes because we have so many mating types that what level of genetic diversity say within the genome, is this just a different strain, a different meeting type or a different species?
And this is one of those fungi that when you look at like species biogeography map toda, it’s basically everywhere in the world. And is that because we don’t know how to delineate or we don’t have a good species concept for it? Or is it, just that, dispersed, it’s hard to say.
[00:14:59] Michael: Yeah, There’s so much to learn and you’re right. The species concept is flawed anyway, in a way like, eh, but we have to have it because otherwise how do we have a common language to talk about these things?
[00:15:10] Damon: Yeah it’s a useful binning process for now, until somebody comes up with something better, but it’s going to be a while before we get something better. I think.
[00:15:18] Michael: So you alluded to some of the factors that might lead to seasonality like the right moisture, the right temperature, things like that. Can you talk a little bit more about seasonality of fungi and how it varies by species? .
[00:15:33] Damon: Let me do this. We do a wide view, like a global view. And then I’m going to go right into my neighborhood more or less like Oakland. And we’ll talk about specific species to delineate how some of these have very different kinds of seasonality effects. So I am personally always jealous my talk to people on the east coast, in the United States where people in Japan and Korea, because the height of their mushroom season is their summers naps because things aren’t freezing.
They’ve got plenty of rain, plenty of moisture. And the reason I mainly jealous is because they have really long games where out on the west coast of north America, Peak kind of fruiting season for fungi is usually our winters and it corresponds with our shortest days. So if you’re out there trying to have a really long walk, it’s a whole bunch of stuff.
You’re usually going to find yourself in the dark, by the end of the walk. And so fungi are usually fungi, fruiting, sorry is usually correlating where you have the highest moisture foreign area and also not freezing temperatures. So those are two big generalities. So if I look closer though, where I’m at and Oakland, California, individual species will more or less decide to fruit anywhere before when we get our first rain all the way out, two months after we get our normal kind of flask rains.
So the classic one in the San Francisco bay area that shows up before the rainy season is commonly called the chicken of the woods mush. Lateral porous and you have two of them in California, Gilbert, Sonia, which only likes hardwoods and then ladder a porous Christopher Cola, which only likes conifers.
So they look really similar. So it’s actually nice that they seem to have this various specific desire for different hosts. So it makes it easy for us in the field to eliminate them, but they show up all the time, almost on a regular schedule about a month before we could ever expect rain, which is mind blowing because this is a mushroom that is usually breaking down a dead tree stump.
Sometimes you’ll find them on trees that are on their way out, but usually you’ll find them on stumps. And the reason I think this is really interesting is because I could see a mushroom picking up signals from a plant that they’re working with and a microrisal kind of symbiotic relationship and going, oh, light’s changing I’m at this season.
I think. But these chicken of the woods mushrooms are somehow getting these signals, not through a host plant, but through other factors in the environment and going, oh, I’m in this season now I’m out of the hot summer and transitioning towards fall. I’m going to go ahead and start fruiting now. And if you look, even in Australia, Australia has some chicken of the woods as well.
And theirs does a very similar thing. It’ll fruit usually about a month before their rainy season starts, which is kind of wild. We’re on the east coast of the United States. It’ll fruit right during the middle of their summer rains. So , these things have figured out more or less the best time for them to get the fruiting bodies out so they can get their spores out into the environment in a desirable time.
I think for chicken to woods, it takes a while for these large mushrooms to form because they end up making these huge shells and some of these can be easily dinner, plate size, and I’m not talking about. Your classic diner plate, I’m talking, you’re going to a banquet. And you know, it’s a server carrying it with both hands type of mushrooms.
So these can take a while to form some times. And so when they hit maturity, maybe at that time is when we start to get moisture. And so those spores are ready, right? When moisture shows up, once we get that first kind of gave losers rain in California, we have a number of fungi that will literally pop up the next day and they will be gone usually within a couple of days.
So these are a lot of the Cooper Knox’s mushrooms. It’s one of the classically known ones is the what is it, the hairs foot. And you’ll see this in mulch all the time. They call it a Harrisburg because we look at the really young one it’s gray and fuzzy, and it looks like those old key chains from the eighties that people had .
And they will, bud really quickly they’ll come up, they’ll drop their scores and melt away within a day. But that first brain also usually initiates a lot of our microrisal species. And so these are species. Live in association, usually with a tree or most of the ones people are focused on.
And a lot of these will pop up within the next week. And this is because they’re working with that host. They can see seasoned changes taking place based upon the amount of light the plant is processing, and you can the amount of sugars are praying getting kicked down, and then we’ll actually start to form these hyphal knots underground.
Before we even get the rain. These little hyphal knots are like a storage of a bunch of mycelium. So that way, as soon as that rain hits, they can quickly erupt out and produce a really big fruiting body really quickly. So these are things like king boletes and some of the other large kind of beliefs that people are interested in eating.
And then we’ve got a handful of mushrooms that will show up after the rains and started to slow down. So the large Chantrelle in California, California kissed the one associates, just the coastline, which is probably one of the largest chanterelles in the world. It’s just a really slow growing mushrooms.
A lot of times like rain season hits and it’s still pushing up and it can sometimes take a month or more to form. So sometimes we’ll already be out of the rainy season and the chanterelles still coming up. So we’ve got a lot of ones that pick different points of the season of wind to pop for California though.
At least the bay area, usually peak of season is somewhere between December and January, as far as when the biggest diversity of mushrooms are up.
[00:20:58] Michael: Yeah. Very different from say if you’re in Michigan or somewhere back east. Yeah.
And in fact, I’m thinking about the forecast here, where we’re supposed to get pretty good rain. Only the second big rain of our rainy season here in the bay area. And then it’s supposed to down at least where I live, it’s going to get very cold, maybe some upper twenties.
So from what you’re saying, that could that could stunt the the fungal development for.
[00:21:26] Damon: It could stunt some fungal development. So some things like that, the warm and wet, some things actually like the cold and wet. So some of the beliefs like the king beliefs, beliefs, Agileists it likes it when it’s warm and wet. And so that’s why when that first rain happens, they start fruiting really quickly.
And then once we get to the cold storms like, well, we’ll get right now, probably it’ll more or less put a kibosh on them. They’ll be like, okay, I’m done one. There’s over, it’s wet grades. I’m done. But then there’s some of these other mushrooms that it actually needs to drop beneath a certain temperature and California and all the kind of Pacific Northwest before they decide to trigger and fruit.
And so we’re now moving our way into, I would say. Classes, we would be like mid-winter mushrooms in California. And so we’ll see things like the yellow foot scan trail coming up the black trumpets things like this that want that little bit of a cold snap before they actually start to fruit.
[00:22:17] Michael: So some of the names that you’ve mentioned, this is obviously it’s audio and the names are pretty evocative. So what I’ll try to do is in the show notes, I’ll include a few photos of some of the species that you’re talking about so that people can take a look and see exactly why they’re named the way they are.
[00:22:35] Damon: Yeah. I’m using some of the common names here. Cause I think it’s little bit easier to then imagine what they look like. Or if I gave you the scientific name, unless you’re really well versed in Latin and are staying there, deciphering this as you’re listening to it, it’s probably not as visually stunning for you.
And also a lot of our tasks on and you just continuing to evolve. And so ironically, some of the common names have had a longer foothold, I would say in the Latin names in California.
[00:22:58] Michael: okay. I wanted to also back up, there’s so many interesting little side discussions we could have here, so I’ll have to really be careful with time. I don’t want to monopolize your whole evening, but back to the reproductive aspect. And just the
mind blowing, number of spores that you need to have to allow for for two of these spores to connect in some way. I’ve heard, I don’t know if you’ll know this off hand, I’ve heard some anecdotes in the past about like every breath we take. Number of spores that were breeding in, there’s just that many fungal spores in the air all the time.
Do you have any insights, like interesting stats off the top of.
[00:23:37] Damon: I don’t have any interesting stats without off the top of my head, but I definitely have, in a dental evidence of how ubiquitous they are. So in my work, I work in microbiology a lot and it is a constant battle. Anytime you were doing these little lab work to make sure you don’t end up with fungal spores, just because they are everywhere.
So if I took like a plate of Augur what we grow a lot of like microbial stuff on it. And I just opened that plate up, open a Petri dish up to the air. I did that in my house for more than five seconds and I close it back up and I let it sit for a week, let things grow. I guarantee you there’s at least 30 to 40 spores that have landed on there and we’ll start doing.
They are just ubiquitous. It’s just everywhere. And if you’ve ever seen like a mushroom drops for, as you were done, a spore print at home, it was for print is if you take one of the caps from mushroom and you sever off the stem and then put the cap with the gills down onto a piece of paper and let it sit overnight, there’s literally just, all of those spores will fall out and pile up to where you got these piles of them that you can see the next day.
And there’s millions upon millions of them there. And if you think about the number of mushrooms in the forest and around you all the time that all of them are doing this, and they’re relatively small cells, they just get picked up by the wind and spread everywhere. And so they are just everywhere all the time.
[00:24:57] Michael: So then that allows them to find their very specialized habitats that they require. I guess they don’t all require very specialized habitats but some do. So why don’t we talk about that a little bit? Are there I assume there are obligate relationships that certain fund guy have. You talked a little bit about the chicken of the woods that are conifer specific.
So is there a way to wrap our heads around those sorts of relationships that that.
[00:25:20] Damon: Yeah. So I usually like to think about fungi as kind of their trophic sources or their lifestyle choices as far as how do I get food from you from the environment. And I usually break them down into three majors. There’s those that are Sapper phytic that are mainly eating dead stuff.
And these are the ones that like, if you went through regular biology courses, primarily the ones that we know we’re talked about when we talk about kingdom fungi, and there’s the other ones, which are the unlikely horizons, these are ones. Found a way to make a relationship with a plant, with a plants, treating them sugar or the fungi more or less scavenging micronutrients.
And a lot of times also water in this kind of relationship. And then the last one is these kind of parasitic relationships where you’ve got a fungus that’s actually going after a living organism these can be highly specialized. So I can, the Safra phytic fungi around Ryan, Matt, we’ve got ones that will differentiate not only between just hardwoods and conifers.
Like we were talking about the chicken of the woods, but we’ll differentiate even further. Like I only like this species of wood to grow on. And so some of the like, was it Panisse, which is really have to caught us as purple-y really leathery feeling mushroom around here. I only find it all on coast.
Live Oak. And a lot of these fungi will seem to have various specific substrates that they grow on. Even just a separate Fiddich ones. Then when you talk about the microrisal ones, it’s interesting because you’ve got a lot of them that have become very good generalist, which means they can work with a number of different tree species, but then there’s a handful that will pick, only one or two tree species that they’ll work with.
And that’s it. And we really see that within the urban interface too, because we have a lot of ornamental plants that came in right there. We’re not from here. And sometimes they will pick up our natives our native Mike rises or make their way onto those trees. So like Atlas, Cedar or something planted all over the bay area.
And it’s actually one of the trees that picks up really well are native beliefs. And so we’ll see, end up on there. We’ll see bleeders ended up there. And so some of these can be very gregarious as far as who they choose to play with Mike Ariselly. And that’s actually led to some of the most notorious mushrooms in California, which are the death caps.
The death cap is not a native mushroom to California, but came here on, we think is probably a rootstock from Quercus Suber, the Corco from Europe. And that cork Oak is close enough related to our coastal LIBO that this mushroom is easily made the jump. And it’s now, all over the west coast and we’re seeing.
Learn, quote, unquote, learn Cav associations with other trees too in California, not just coast live Oak. Now we’ll find it on other ropes. We found it on other hardwoods now. So it’s really interesting that you can see some of these can be very gregarious, like horizons and others can be, I only have this one or two tree species I want to work with
[00:28:13] Michael: So you referred to that one as notorious. What makes it so notorious
[00:28:19] Damon: then a Taurus thing about is if you ever hear about mushroom poisoning in California, it’s predominantly the one that is causing these poisonings. And that’s mainly because it’s a really large, good looking mushroom and people will harvest it, thinking that it’s something edible. And unfortunately also from the people that have been poisoned and survive, it also tastes really good.
It doesn’t give you any indication right away. It’s something you don’t want to be. And it unfortunately has a various slow onset as far as the pathology of it goes. And so it has a compound alpha Aminata talks and that stops RNA polymerase two from working and from a biology point of view, if you’re basically you’ve got DNA, it goes to RNA and then goes to your proteins and a protein to make up your cells.
And everything is functioning with this toxin does, is it shuts down the ability to take that DNA information and translate it into RNA. So all of a sudden, all of your cells that have this toxin can more or less, no longer make proteins. And so everything just starts shutting down and you really don’t start seeing symptoms using until about six to 24 hours after which then it’s hard to say purge a person’s stomach of them.
And so this is why it’s a really kind of deadly mushroom in that regards.
But at the same time, toxins are a great source for us to learn about biology. So a lot of these toxins that we find in Aminata employees are actually ones that are exploited for us to actually figure out how cell biology works.
So alpha Amie, Nita toxin has really allowed us to figure out how it RNA polymerase two works. They have a whole nother class of toxins in this mushroom known as fallow toxins that stop your cells from being able to divide, which has allowed us to study those mechanisms. And so I know when people hear talks, since they’re like, oh, horrible.
And it’s like true, but from a research point of view, a lot of times toxins are some of the best things because it allows us to stop the system so that we can figure out how mechanistically is.
[00:30:25] Michael: top of my mind. I just did a BioBlitz yesterday and had a couple of fungal observations out in the field. . A couple of them may be examples of parasitic relationships. So one, I, there was a disc gall on an Oak leaf and there was a fungus growing on It and I’m just going to guess first of all, is that of interest should I be reporting something like that in citizen science fields, but does that sound like a an example of a parasitic, fungal relations?
[00:30:56] Damon: It definitely could be. And there are a whole group of fungi that parasitize insects. And so this may be one there. It’s not one. I am familiar with off the top of my head and that’s why I was like, whoa, what is that? If you would tag that on address, I would love to take a look at it and see if anybody knows what it is.
Because single parasitism happens in all different kind of portions of the kingdom of life. Fungi will go after fungi. Fungi will blocker insects. Fungi will go after. Basically you give them a carbon source and some fungus is going to figure out how to exploit it. Once we go after insects people tend to be very interested in because they produced really interesting medicinal compounds to manipulate those hosts a lot of times in order to either gain access to them, or sometimes even transform the host into a better vector for moving their scores around.
So one for example is I will butcher the Latin. So we’re going to go with the common name, the fly death fungus, which is one that I have a very intimate relationship with. I found one of these in point raised a couple of years ago, and I brought it back to my home to study and inadvertently spread it to all of the flies in my house.
And what this fungus does, is it attacks the fly. By taking over their nervous system, it doesn’t kill them right away. But what it does is it makes it so their wings can’t be used and then it gives them summit disease. So the flies will basically crawl up as high as they can get. And they’ll lock their mouth parts onto the substrate.
And at that point they deceased, the fungus emerges and then shoot spores down all over the place. And so that’s some disease. They basically got them up high, right? The scores can get a better trajectory and land on other potential flies. And so since about 2014, I’ll usually have two or three cycles a year in my apartment where all of the fruit flies, all of a sudden get some, a disease and start dying left and right around the apartment complex, which is kind of wild.
[00:32:58] Michael: It might be worse than that. You might want to take a look at eye naturalists and see if there’s like a blast radius around your apart.
[00:33:06] Damon: I’ve definitely seen it spread from the apartment to then the hallways in the building. But I haven’t seen it get outside the building yet, but at the same time, you know what, it was a local fungus to start with. And all I’ve done is help it find new hosts. But there’s a lot of groups that are studying this in the academic spectrum, trying to figure out how does it take over the nervous system?
Things like this. So there’s a whole bunch of really deep primary cell biology, interests and understanding these patterns.
[00:33:31] Michael: It reminds me, there was a lot of press last spring with the emergence of of the brood tin cicadas. There was a fungus there as well that had a sort of a negative impact on the cicadas, but positive for the.
[00:33:45] Damon: Yeah. And that was the funniest. It was only described like a couple of years ago. And actually, a lot of people that would say that are very well known with the mechanic community science project were really involved in getting some of the first samples together for the academic labs to study.
And this is massive. Spora is the name of the genius of this fungus. And it, I think they call it the salt, pepper, or salt shaker of death or something like that for a cicadas that basically eats up the entire, but to the Cicada and the cicadas flying around, just dropping spores all over the place. And then it does this through using a lot of compounds that when you tell humans about it, they’re like, whoa, why would you use.
It’s some of the psychedelic components you find magic mushrooms in there are in there. And also something that’s very similar to what methamphetamine is in there. And these are being used to manipulate the insects nervous system. And this is I think what we’re starting to see with flight, death, fungus, and a lot of these other ones where you’ve got major behavior changes, taking place in these insects just wild.
[00:34:45] Michael: it really is. It just shows how, to, to use the corny Jurassic park life finds a way, like there’s all these different strategies that exist to to perpetuate a given organisms life.
[00:34:59] Damon: Yeah. And I think one thing that like a lot of people don’t realize there’s like people in north America is people will have folks have seen like a national geographic thing or like a David Attenborough thing about. Aunt’s getting you a fungal infection, like climbing up and having the fungus kind of bust out of their head and shoot all over the place.
These kind of quarter steps, Fung, fungi, use ones that are really notorious for taking over insects, but you don’t have to go to the tropics to see those. If you go to the tropics, it’s a lot easier to find those, but we have them all across north America. If you just learned to look for them, because we’ve got ones taking over flies, we’ve got ones taking over cicadas.
There’s also ones that go after spiders. And so they’re everywhere. If you learn to look for them.
[00:35:39] Michael: I have to say, I know we’re only part way through, but I’m having lots of fun in this sort of meandering conversation. There’s so many interesting side doors to go through. So another side. Then yeah, I mentioned this BioBlitz and there you have always noticed, there are a lot of different rust on plants and and very often, at least from the citizen science standpoint they’re typically fairly easy to identify because they’re host specific or at least Sheena’s specific.
So what’s going on with rusts? Are these also parasitic or is they’re often growing on healthy plant?
[00:36:12] Damon: Yep. A lot of Russ car parasitic and actually half the reason that they’ve been studied so well is because of that nature. So if you look at Mike logical science, at least in north America, it’s really poorly represented in academia, except for when you get to crop diseases. And so Russ are these crop diseases.
We worry about all the time. So that’s why they’ve been really well identified Russ, depending upon which one can have really complex life cycles, where they actually will have. Multiple different plants. They have to move through in order to complete their life cycle. So it’s not just like this fungus is going to grow on this plant’s leaf and that’s going to be it.
And that cycles back sometimes they’ll have to cycle from, two to three different plant hosts in order to complete their lifecycle, which is kind of amazing. But also if you think about this from an evolutionary point of view, but it does is it gives them a safety net because they’re not locked into a single host.
So maybe something happens to a seasonal grass. If this Russ likes to grow in and the grass hasn’t come up for a year instead of being bankrupt now and going out with that grass not being around, it could maybe hold up in a Woody plant for a couple of seasons until the grass populations recover.
Ross really cool ones, especially if you get some macro lenses on them. Visually, some of them are really stunning up close.
[00:37:34] Michael: Are there any in particular I should be looking for? You’ve piqued my interest.
[00:37:38] Damon: One of my favorites and it just cause it comes up on I’m going to butcher the Latin name of Oles, Paul, the ground sills all the time, these kind of urban meaty plants. There’s one that shows up on the leaves there very frequently, at least in the spring time in California, that is just visually stunning.
You’ll walk by a plant and you’ll realize before you get to it, that it’s got the rust because the whole plant will be. Sloping down a little bit, and then you’ll notice even see the orange edit distance, which is cool. I don’t remember the name of that one, fortunately. And there is another one that occurs on coyote brush.
That’s really cool. Coyote brush, I would say is one of these like really underappreciated plants in California by people that aren’t into plants. Because if you go to a bio books, say that is the plant it, as I see one, I’m like, I’m going to stand five minutes here and just go over the entire thing because you’ll find tons of insects there.
You’ll find, goals from the insects. And then there’s a lot of fun data I’d like to associate with two. And there’s one of these rusts that the twigs will literally look like they’re bursting with orange and that’s all of these spores being produced out from the rust fungi.
[00:38:47] Michael: now that’s one that we did see yesterday. There were a lot of those. Yeah. I will certainly be able to give a photo. I took some myself they will be in the show notes, like when I look at my own backyard, for example, I see rusts on, we have some ornamental rosebushes. I’ll see Russ on that.
How do the rest then transfer from plants?
[00:39:07] Damon: So it’s interesting. Cause like rust can get around in a lot of different ways. They actually have relatively large spores. If you put me in the microscope and look like some pretty big compared to some of the other fungi that are out there. If they’re smaller, can get blown around to the next place they need to go.
But some will use vectors. And I might say vectors a lot of times I’m talking about some sort of animal to get them from one place to another. Maybe there is a fly that’s landing on the plants and getting the spores on them and then taking it off. In fact, there’s one really incredible example that you can find in California that it’s a rust that infects.
I think it’s a brassica if I remember right. And it makes the brassica look like a flower. And so outside of flowering season, also in this thing, looks like it has a yellow flower the top, but if you look at it, it’s actually just a bunch of rust. Pustule is more or less, so insects will land on it.
Like it’s a flower get covered in the spores and then fly off with it and move the spores to the next. and I have been really good at figuring out how to convince animals specifically to move their spores around. I think one of the most famous ones from a culinary point of view is of course the truffle.
So truffles produce compounds that are very similar to pheromones that pigs can pick up on they’ll dig for them. And that ended up spreading the spores around. And you see a lot of rodents this time of year in California, digging. Some of them are burying stuff, but a lot of them are actually digging up a lot of these hypo GS, so underground mushrooms that produce, smells that entice mammals to dig them up, eat them, and then move this spores around which is pretty cool.
And if we look at somebody’s insects are some really cool parents. Um, So unfortunately in California, a lot of us are really vividly aware of what’s going on with pine beetles in the Sierra Nevada. We’ve had the drought, which made a lot of our pine trees, more simpleton, pine beetles.
If you look at their exoskeleton, they actually have little nodules in the exoskeleton that perfectly fit the spore of a fungus, that they have a really close relationship with. So the beetle board into say a new pine tree and will more or less bring the spores with in with them into the tree. The spore will germinate in the tree and then start to cane the wood, which then gives the beetle easier access to the plants.
And so if you go through and you’re cutting these trees that have had pine beetle infections, you’ll see that they’ve got this blue stain all throughout them. And that’s from that fungus that the beetle is more or less carrying around. And it’s head plates for the most part. So there’s just a dizzying number of ways that mushrooms have convinced things to move them around, which is super, super cool.
[00:41:54] Michael: Yeah, it’s fascinating. And you start putting together all of these relationships and then You think of all the compound relationships that exist.
[00:42:02] Damon: A lot of times we just that it was like mushrooms, convincing things, Hey, come here and take me and move me. But sometimes they’re also trying to sell things, Hey, don’t mess with me. I’m so some fungi will produce compounds then that keep things from messing with them. So like the whole group of mushrooms that people call magic mushrooms, the active compound in there, we think is actually an anti herbivory compound, which is basically don’t eat me.
Like I’m trying to produce my spores and get them out in the world. Please don’t mess with me. And there’s a bunch of other fungi that will produce very bitter compounds for the same reason, which is pretty, pretty wild.
[00:42:37] Michael: and then of course the taste or the impacts are going to be perceived differently by different animals or insects that are that are taking advantage of it too.
[00:42:46] Damon: Yep. And you can that if you observe some of the fungi in the field and spend a little bit of time around them, you’ll see specific types of insects coming to them versus other ones, like in the same area, like a classic one in California. And we see this all over the world with the group that’s known as distinct horns, but in California, we’ve got this one that’s known as the cage stink horn.
It literally comes up. It’s the color of a rotting carcass and smells just like it. And so it’s convincing flies to come to it in order to spread the scores and nothing else really seems to come to this. And so if you watch it, it’s always kind of carrion flies will show up and nobody. You don’t see sludge really attacking these very frequently or anything else.
And so they have all these mechanisms to select for that vector that they want and try and keep everybody else from taking them down.
[00:43:36] Michael: Yeah. I keep pausing here a little bit because it’s there’s so many fun ways We can continue to go. And I’m already thinking that I’ll have to. If you would be willing, maybe even have a part two, at some point we say, I can already anticipate all of the questions and commentary I’m going to get like, you know, Mike, you didn’t ask this one question.
You should have asked this other question.
[00:43:56] Damon: Yeah. We can do a follow up at some time. We are trying to cover like an entire kingdom, which is there’s a whole bunch of variation within that. Of
and there’s also an interest for anybody that’s listening. There is, I would say one of the best books for my call. Do I read in your, just came out within the past year, which is the Entangled Vive by Shedrick. I think she’s last name with Kendrick. And it is just, it’s phenomenal. It’s a, it’s the best I would say, catch up on what’s going on and all of these kind of leading edges of understanding, the mycological universe.
It’s really well written, easy to digest. As somebody that’s in the field and even somebody that’s just starting the road into my college.
[00:44:33] Michael: That’s great. I’ll definitely look into that and link to it. And in fact, I know there’s a big glaring hole that we have in our discussion about mycelium and soil health and, the so-called worldwide web. I just don’t think we’re going to get into that too.
[00:44:47] Damon: That’s fine. Yeah.
[00:44:48] Michael: There is another really fascinating thing that I know that there’s an interest in my audience about. And that’s lichen. Can you tell me a bit about how fungi relate to like.
[00:44:58] Damon: yeah. So lichen is really interesting. I guess some people would say organism, but really there it’s a community that we give the name. Like it’s an organism. So traditionally we’ve always thought about lichens as being. a fungus and some sort of photo symbiotic working together. When I say photos and beyond we’re talking a cyanobacteria or an algal cell but just within the last five years, that’s been completely blown out of the water by the 2016 paper where a group realized that in a lot of cases, it’s not just two organisms that are there.
There’s oftentimes a third, a yeast upstair, and ever since 2016 as more and more people dig into this field, we’re realizing that this thing that we call lichen is really a very dynamic community. It’s not just two players. Sometimes it’s not just three. Sometimes it’s a whole bunch of them and you can interchange some of the players and still have something that looks like the original light.
Which is kind of wild. And just from a taxonomy point of view, usually most of the lichens that we see like in north America tend to be an ASCO, my seats, and we it’s fungi associating with a photo symbiote, but occasionally when you get down to the tropics, you’ll even find some of the best Seomyeon seats acting as the fungal kind of hosts that makes more or less the home, the whole everybody else.
And so they’re definitely a field that, we’ve got decades worth of work to do, to really figure out what’s going on there. And from a naming point of view, I think it’s also one of these ones that you just like grim at because we apply these names to things, but they’re really a community.
And I think this is actually wonderful in that even when we look at other organisms, even like, say ourselves, we’re not just ourselves, right? If you remove the micro floor from a human, a human is no longer. And so it really gets you into this kind of thought process about what is a species, what is a community?
How do we go about naming these things that actually represent the thing itself and the thing within its community?
[00:47:02] Michael: And that’s exactly where I was going to go. As humans, how many millions of bacteria? I don’t know if it’s millions, but lots of bacteria, lots of other organisms that we depend on and they depend on us and yeah, we’re a community?
and a species.
[00:47:17] Damon: And I think most organisms, the more we dig into it, the more we see that. And I think the reason that’s starting to take places because we are just within the last, half a century of developed the tools where we can start seeing all of those organisms that comprises the community.
[00:47:30] Michael: Maybe before we move on a little bit to the DNA sequencing and other DNA discoveries which I know could be another hour if we wanted it to be. But we’re going to be set some high points. W what are some of the one or two of the biggest myths and unknowns that are top of your mind anyway, with respect to guy guide mushroom.
[00:47:48] Damon: I think one of the biggest ones, and this is just because for the most part, I’ve grown up in a culture that was predominantly microphones. And that’s like that wave is starting to shift now. But I remember growing up people would be like, oh, don’t touch that much. Or it might be poisonous.
Really plants are a lot more scary if you talk about toxicity compared to most mushrooms and even, especially from like touching, there’s a lot of plants that when you touch them really bad things can happen pretty quickly. We’re fungi. It’s a really small number. In fact, there’s only one known mushroom in the world that actually has any sort of contact dermatitis that then can lead to any major elements.
And that one is over in Japan. So for the most part, at least Western United States, based upon our habitat, we will probably never need to worry about this. And even within California, I would say there’s only a handful of really deadly mushrooms where, when you talk about plants, there’s a lot more deadly plants if you were to ingest them.
And there is mushrooms on the other side of this kind of coin. So you have the microphones via that. Thou is being washed over by this health and wellness craze around fund guy. Which has been hard for me, it’s like a mycologist to deal with because people want to basically use mushrooms, have a penis, see a topic like, oh, we need this machine will cure all of these things where it’s given them a lot of line lights, but at the same time, it’s kind of mystified and downplayed.
The mycological community is at least in California struggles with a lot in this gets to land management practices, is this idea that picking mushrooms actually purchase the organisms. And so if we get back to, we think about the life cycle of fungi, right? The mushroom is just a really short portion of life cycle.
It’s just the fruiting body. It’s like the apple from an apple tree and picking the apple from the apple trees, not going to do anything bad to the tree, unless you’re like breaking branches in the process and things like that. And ultimately, you’re probably going to spread the seeds around from the long-term studies that we’ve seen in Europe and Switzerland.
And then we have a long-term study that’s up in Oregon, where they study plots of land, where they let people pick and then pause land where they didn’t let people pick. And they looked at total biomass of fruit. Bodies. They actually increased a lot of times in the places they were picked. And then as long as land management practices were in place to keep people from trampoline spaces, it seems like you didn’t see a major change in the habitat when it came to picking fund Jada. And that’s one of the ones it’s like in California, it’s freelancing, there’s all this hot debate about, you know, where can people go pitch if they’re interested in mushrooms? Because unfortunately not we’re fortunately, unfortunately a lot of people get into selling mushrooms because they want to eat them.
And it’s a slippery slope. You see these people that start off oh, I’m just interested in edibles. And then they realized this wonderful diversity and then they become much more consumed with seeing the diversity instead of just, what can I get from that organism? Which is really interesting with fungi compared to, birds and other things like that, where people get into them because of these things that aren’t necessarily attached to their stomachs fundraise a very different fields.
[00:51:21] Michael: Actually, if I could ask you about picking and thinking about how there are a lot of naturalists that listen to this podcast If I understand to really get as close to a good identification of a mushroom, very often, you do need to pick the mushroom so you can inspect it closely and see some of the field marks, see what the stem is like.
So do the same rules hold true then for naturalist. Is It okay to to pick a sample to help you with an identification?
[00:51:50] Damon: It depends upon where you’re at . Like I’ve definitely gotten myself in trouble accidentally to camp mushroom and splicing and half one. In order to look at attributes, I needed to identify the species of cam clowning. And I was like, oh, give me your driver’s license. I need you to write you up.
And I was like, what? I’m just, I’m trying to identify this. And it was like, oh no, that’s against, the rules here. And so it’s, it really varies from kind of land management in California, there’s only a handful of places that you can actually go and collect mushrooms like openly and legally.
And so that salt point. Point rays national forest, and then the national forest systems all are like open for collection and things like that. But I think there’s a lot of pressure on other management groups to reconsider that. But I think what’s really going to change that tide is having some data from California because it’s one thing to point at studies from Switzerland.
Oregon’s a little bit closer. I think if we had some good data sets in areas where you had this practice taking place, and this fact is not taking place and seeing how does that change the ecologies? I think we would be able to make better decisions and maybe it might not be picking.
Maybe we do see there is a difference because of our slightly dryer habitats compared to Oregon. But those are some of those studies I would like to see in order for us to make informed , land management choices about picking.
[00:53:07] Michael: Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s one of these scenarios where I think a lot of us are familiar with parks that simply say no collecting, no picking.
and often focus a lot on wild flowers as an example, because people will like to go and collect wild flowers to take home or whatever the case might be. But it, it can be, at least for me, the way my brain works hard to remember that would translate to mushrooms as well.
So it’s a good reminder to be aware of what the regulations are in the park that you’re at.
[00:53:37] Damon: Yeah. And it also speaks to the different biology of them, right? Picking flowers would be picking up something before it’s had a chance to produce its way to reproduce with the mushroom. Usually by the time you get that full mushroom body up, it’s already producing spores and having somebody actually pick it up, even just turn it over in your hands and look at it.
You’ve all of a sudden just covered yourself. You’ve become one of those vectors and the mushroom to some degree, got a little bit of what it wanted and now you’re spreading it around. So it’s, I think a lot of people don’t, since they don’t understand the life cycle of the mushroom some of these land management practices have happened because of that, because we think about this as just everything is don’t touch now the easiest way to manage it, which from a management point of view, you can get right.
It’s easier to have that broad rule. Don’t touch don’t disturb anything, leave it how it is.
[00:54:21] Michael: Yep. Definitely easier to communicate that then a nuanced circumstance.
[00:54:27] Damon: Yeah. But it does bring up a really interesting about the way that people then interact with the land. Because some of these places that people are allowed to go pick, it is a lot easier to rally people around wanting to take care of that land. And I’m not sure if it’s just because they’ve got this sort of deeper relationship with the land or what it is, but I feel like my college communities have a pre like strong sway about getting people excited about land protection.
Because of these relationships,
[00:55:00] Michael: All right? So we’ve been working up to this point throughout the discussion at the beginning. I, you talked about some of your background in DNA and the convergence of your interest in my cology in DNA. So can you tell me a little bit about that? Like how do these two topics convert?
[00:55:17] Damon: right? So DNA sequencing has been a technology that’s been developing for literally since the seventies, but it’s really grown exponentially in the last, I’d say 20 years ever since we finished the first draft of the human genome that I was involved in. So a lot of technologies that we use on the human genome project, because they’ve been around for awhile now, I’ve gotten just cheaper and cheaper every year, which then has all of a sudden made these tools accessible to community scientists.
So somebody that’s not in a traditional academic setting. Can now get used to these molecular tools as a different lens to look at, say, fungal taxonomy with, and this is really big, especially for Western United States where a lot of the mushrooms we have were given Latinized names based upon what they looked like in Europe and looked similar here.
But as soon as you do a little bit of microscopy and a little bit of molecular work, IED DNA sequencing, you realize that these are not the same organisms and the ones out here need a new name. And for the most part it’s community scientists, a lot of the times driving a lot of this where it’s starting to happen more and more as these tools become cheaper and cheaper.
So the DNA sequencing that was used on that first draft of the human genome, which was called Sanger sequencing is something that for the most part. People working now on sequencing more human genomes and stuff like that. I’ve left in the dust, which has been great because it’s made it cheaper for the community scientists to access it.
And when I say from a price point of view accessible, we’re talking to start a home lab in order to get into this. You’re looking at somewhere between 800 and $1,500. It’s still a big price tag, to get started for a lot of folks. But once you’ve got that, you’re looking at somewhere between five to $10 to be able to generate DNA sequences of an organism that you’re interested in.
So the cool thing is you could do this with mushrooms, but you could literally do this with any sort of organism that you’re interested in. You could extract the DNA, amplify it, using a technique known as the plumber is chain reaction or PCR. You’ll confirm that took place. You got the amplification that took place and then send this out and then be able to get sequence back.
And that all of a sudden allows you this different lens than just looking at, the physiological structures of the thing and trying to determine what it is is now we can use statistics and compare this to other sequences to figure out kind of evolutionary relationships of these organisms to each other.
And that’s, you know, besides being able to say, Hey, this is a new species. I would say that is the other really big benefit of this is it helps us draw these evolutionary lines between things which hadn’t always been clear. So one great example of this is the belief family. So beliefs typically are these mushrooms that have these kind of like spore packs or pad bottoms on them.
A famous one in that group is the porcini or bilious Angela. But there are some beliefs that don’t have score pads on the bottom silo. I’m going to push for the name of it, but there is the one that’s called the guilt beliefs that we can find I’m in California and it’s got gills. But if you look at it from a molecular point of view, it’s much closer, more closely related to these things with the score pad bottoms than it is with anything with the Gill.
And so these, molecular lenses allow us to see these relationships in ways that we would have missed if we were just looking at just gross morphology, which is super, super cool. These technologies that we’re maturing are changing really quickly. So Sanger sequencing is the technique that’s been used for about two decades now, but there’s a lot of emerging technologies that I think will move their way into the community science space with the next five to 10 years, the one I’m most excited about.
Our Nanopore sequence servers. So the singer sequencing relied upon some of the instruments that are like 300, $400,000. And that’s why you’re sending out your PCR reaction to finish getting the sequencing. These Nanopore sequencers are not inexpensive yet. You’re still looking at 500, $1,000 per run, which is out of my price range and out of most community science ranges at this point.
But the exciting thing is some of these are the size of a USB drive. So you could literally be doing this in the middle of the Amazon, things like that. And people are starting to do this in academia, and this will slowly make its way. I think, into community science over the next five to 10 years, as the prices start to fall, and that’s going to do two major things, a we’ll get many more people looking through the molecular lens of how these fungal relationships or existing.
And we’ll be able to sequence larger portions of these organisms. Cause right now, for the most part, when people do sequencing, they’re looking at really small fraction of these genomes in order to do the comparison. So just to kind put some numbers on it, usually we’re looking at sequences that are a thousand base pairs or less, and some of these genomes are enormous.
They could be a billion basis, zero, literally it was looking at a small piece. So doing relationships and statistics with them, we’re getting a pretty good view of what’s going on because we’ve chosen these areas to look at based upon them being things that are good for telling things apart.
But if we’re able to look at the full genomes, we’ll get much bigger pictures of what’s taking place. And so I’m really excited to see that change probably in the next five to 10 years.
[01:00:50] Michael: So for anyone who’s interested in digging into this, if they do have the budget to look in to some of the more expensive technologies or even some of the, I guess they’re there they’re all a little bit pricey, but some of the less expensive ones were, where would you point people to.
[01:01:04] Damon: If you’re doing this for fungi, there’s actually quite a few folks now that have really good talks online about how to do this. Um, And so if you type in citizen science, usually fungal sequencing into YouTube, you’ll find talks by Alan Rockefeller. Siegrid back east. I think I’ve done a couple for a couple of mycological societies to walk you through all the different kind of variations of how you might go about doing this.
And so there’s a really robust community developing online around all of these tools, which is fantastic.
[01:01:39] Michael: I’ll I’ll try to find a few. And if you don’t mind, I’ll bounce them off you to see if they’re good ones.
[01:01:43] Damon: Yeah,
[01:01:44] Michael: This is really fascinating. And Yeah,
I was thinking about some other interesting areas. Galls people listening to the show a while, know that I’ve gotten into golf quite a bit.
And the fact that spring cycle and fall cycle can look very different, but be the same species. And there’s all these different unknowns about those relationships yet to be discovered. And it sounds like some of this DNA sequencing technology might help amateurs start to piece it together a little bit.
[01:02:10] Damon: it definitely would in the beauty belt goals is, a lot of the starting information we would need in order for a community scientists to really run with this, or already there, like we know how, what farmers are needed, just PCR reactions and things like that. And that’s the cool thing about sequencing?
Is it gets you out of having to worry about what does this thing look like? And you can look at the organism at different points in its life and still realize it’s the same thing, which is super, super
[01:02:37] Michael: Mm.
[01:02:38] Damon: And especially for like organisms that maybe you don’t see them get big ever.
So a lot of like fungi, what’s going on in academia right now, there’s people digging into soils and then just doing sequencing, asking what’s here. And we’re seeing all these things that we couldn’t see because they don’t make fruiting bodies or maybe they only make 3d and bodies once every 10 years with really special conditions.
And all of a sudden we’re able to see them because of this tool.
[01:03:03] Michael: In the category of citizen science and the amateur community. What other universities of the other big opportunities that citizen scientists have to contribute to my college?
[01:03:16] Damon: I think one of the biggest places is one of the places everybody starts with a lot of organisms is just observing them. But then taking it one step further and observing, and then documenting them into places where people can figure out when and where these things are fruiting. So the use of eye naturalists or mushroom observer to document these organisms where you saw it when you saw it.
So other people can mind this information. And the reason that’s really helpful is that. Especially with fungi. You’re getting one chance during the entire season to even realize that this organism is there. And so if we were relying upon, graduate students to find this really low number of people to see these things, but if you have a lot of people that are interested in these organisms going on, documenting them with their cell phones and putting them on these community science project platforms, they, all of a sudden are generating these species biogeography maps that we wouldn’t have got any other way.
And it’s been really interesting in the last couple of years, there’s been a couple of focused efforts to go after what we thought were rare species by getting funneling people towards naturals and saying, please try to observe this where we’ve realized as a, with some of these things, they might not actually be rare.
And it was just because they weren’t well-documented, but you got to know another people, jazz got going out and trying to find them and damn all of a sudden, there it is. And then. That’s usually what people say, cut their teeth in my call, or you get used to finding mushrooms, which is a whole thing into itself, learning to read a landscape of where a mushroom might be and then be able to actually discover it.
They’re fruiting documenting it. So learning what attributes you need to photograph in order for somebody to be able to maybe, give this a species name and say the second level then is to then take those organisms and start doing microscopy on them. So a lot of fungal taxonomy also rests highly upon what do specialize cells look like and what do the spores look like?
And so usually it’s say level two for most mycologists is getting into microscopy, which is like a whole world in to itself. And I would say level three then is bringing in that, those molecular tools and doing the DNA sequencing And so far I’ve talked on mainly like very taxonomy focused pieces of my call.
And I would say there’s an entire other branch out there, which is cultivation. So learning how to take some of these wild species and then bring them into a way that we can actually grow them and then study them. And this is really important because people that are trying to use fungi in application, some might be things like micro remediation or building soil, things like this.
You really need to figure out how to grow things that are hopefully local and use local species to then help facilitate local processes. And then from like a biology, cell biology point of view, there’s also a lot of novel compounds in these organisms that were just like literally hitting the tip of the iceberg right now.
And so being able to grow them as, and allow us to isolate and purify these compounds in order to be able to study them as well.
[01:06:22] Michael: So when you talk about microscopy, what kind of power do you need to at least make some inroads as an amateur?
[01:06:30] Damon: Usually you’re going to need somewhere between 400 and a thousand X magnification for my cross, with a deer doing to really make in rows, because that’s going to allow you to measure the size of the cells that are used for figuring out taxonomy. Which means that if you’re doing that thousand X, you’re going to have to get a little bit of skill under your bill.
If you’re going to have to use what we call a Virgin oil in order to get that magnification. And so a little bit of training is usually needed. It’s not just oh, I bought a microscope and I’m going to just do this today. It’s, it’s going to be an investment of a couple of days of playing around and figuring out how to use it.
The beauty is down now that there’s a lot of YouTube around just doing fungal Micross to be out there online. So I know Alan Rockefeller has a couple of good ones out there. And there was a couple of like step throughs online by Michael Webb and things like that. So if you’re interested in that, it’s easy to find resources to learn.
And there’s a whole world unto itself when you’re under the microscope. And I’ve definitely fallen into this before. I’m like, I’m just going to look at this one thing. It’s eight o’clock at night. And then I looked up and I’m like, oh my gosh, it’s 1:00 AM. What am I doing? But at the same time, you get stuck there because there’s so many kinds of cool things you start seeing when you’re at those levels.
[01:07:46] Michael: And this is a topic that I can say, at least for me personally I’m scared of not because of the learning curve, but because there are , so many doors that are going to get opened by it.
[01:07:59] Damon: So true.
[01:08:00] Michael: So any other suggestions for naturalists looking to make their first steps into this.
[01:08:05] Damon: . I think learning to read the landscape is the thing I’ve learned most about getting into mushrooms. The thing I’ve appreciated most and is also, I would say one of the first places I, if I was beginning this all over again, I would want to start. And a big portion of it comes down to just a handful of factors, especially in California.
It’s a little unique because we have a kind of slightly dry habitat. So learning to read where. Underground water might be, is really helpful for funding and a lot of fungi. And going into ravines and be able to read, okay, the water’s probably coming down this side. So that’s where I’m going to spend my time looking for fruiting bodies and things like that.
And then the other portion of it is just the seasonality that we talked about before. And that’s one of those things that takes a little bit longer to develop, because it means you’ve got to put the couple, sometimes years under your belt, hiking trails, and then just getting a feel for the seasonality of things where you live.
But that’s also one of the most rewarding things too, is like knowing like, oh, I just saw this weather pattern, oh, I’m going to go out this weekend. Cause I know I had a potential to see this organism. It’s only going to be up for this week and then it’s gone for a year and it really gives you a whole different appreciation of the ecology around you when you realize that some things are.
So ephemeral, it’s like wild flowers can be like that. Some wild flowers just up for a little bit of time. You’re like, oh, I missed it. Oh no, I got to wait until next year. And if you get that same sort of fuel with mushrooms too.
[01:09:35] Michael: Then there’s also the really positive feedback where you make that connection, now’s the time to go find it, or at least you have an inkling that now’s the time to go find it. And then you actually do. And it’s wow, like that sort of puts it all together. Like I’m starting to learn some things here,
[01:09:51] Damon: Yeah. Yeah.
then it’s kind of, filled with sell them to you because some of the mycorrhizal fungi, it’s not only oh, I know this is the right time, but like, I know I can go to this specific tree and I can probably expect to see that mushroom come up again. Which has like a whole nother feel to it too, because you’re not just seeing that organism.
You’re seeing this kind of whole ecological landscape working together. Allow certain organisms to get to their reproductive cycles, which is super cool.
[01:10:19] Michael: So Damon, this has been a really fascinating discussion, a tip of the iceberg or fruiting body of the mushroom, or I don’t know what the right pun would be. But yeah, it’s a few questions. I like to ask my guests to wrap things up because I find that people like yourself have a really interesting perspective of the world.
And in particular, I am interested in what your interest in nature has taught you about living life.
[01:10:49] Damon: I think the biggest thing, and it just expands every year is kind of humility and wonder because the more I go out there and I try to, the more I’m aware of the things I could see. The more, I become aware of how much, I don’t know. And that it’s funny because at one point you were like, oh my God, I’ll never know it all, but at the same time, it just expands that desire to go out and see stuff.
And so it’s this kind of just this wonderful feeling of there’s so much out there I could learn and I don’t have to go far. I don’t have to go, to the tropics or someplace magical. I can literally go to my backyard and see it change if I just learn to look. And I think that’s what nature has taught me the most is to take time, to observe little tiny changes, and that can be tiny changes in the natural world around me.
And it could also be even changes within myself and to recognize that those are there. And that’s not always easy to do, especially with the world that we live in, where everything’s very fast paced. Everything’s asking for your time to carve out that time to go look and think about what’s going on.
Really enlightens, at least my life.
[01:11:53] Michael: Yeah, absolutely. And I was having flashbacks, as you were talking about that too, the early days of the pandemic and how so many people for perhaps the first time in years, or the first time in their lives, started to make that connection, developing a practice of, walking or hiking or checking their backyard on a daily basis and starting to see those things.
So I hope we can all retain that, as a, as hopefully the world goes back to normal, hopefully that’s one part that doesn’t go back to normal that people can retain that connection that, that started to.
[01:12:25] Damon: I hope so. Cause my, I think I was already a student of that prior to the pandemic, but I felt that takeoff so much more than the pandemic, just because it was easier for me to carve out time to do that. And I started to see deeper and deeper into those cycles right around me. We could carve out the time to do it.
[01:12:43] Michael: and if you could magically impart one ecological concept to help the public, see the world, like you see it, what would that.
[01:12:51] Damon: I mean, It’s going to sound super corny, right. but to get people to understand how interconnected all things are, biological and a biotic things. And it’s one of those things. Cause I think a lot of people just don’t realize how their actions affect everything around them. And especially when it comes to locally ecology, choices we make every day are having impacts locally and globally on organisms.
And ultimately it comes back and affects us. We’re not outside of these systems, but I think that’s, it. It’s a hard thing for a lot of people to recognize. But I think some of these practices, we just talked about that people started developing during the. are the tip of the iceberg for people realizing that because as they see those cycles change, they can see how this interaction here changed the way to something else over here, it’s a place and they start to see that interconnectedness.
So I hope these are things that continue to grow within people that have taken this time.
[01:13:48] Michael: Yeah. And it sounds like maybe you started to answer a what by next question is going to ask and that’s what have you found really to be most effective in helping people move up a rung in their environmental awareness?
[01:13:59] Damon: I think the biggest one is, getting people out into their local habitats right. And you’re inducing them to the organisms around them and helping them see those relationships between the organisms and then ultimately themselves. And to some degree, this sounds like the corny thing that everybody’s going to tell you.
And, people envision oh, you’re going out. And like, you know, showing them a bird and people are having this oh I, I S like I have some major connection to visually seeing this thing. But I radically maybe this, cause I’ve worked in with, , my college, you know, ’cause I find that going out and seen as great, but technology has taken over so much of our scene and hearing that really want to take people out.
I find what really helps them get a connection is using those other senses. And so if I can get somebody to smell something, I get to make tea, something, it has this longer impact emotionally with them. And if I talk to them again, like that’s usually what they’ll reference. And so I go out, I’m trying to introduce them to the organism and then get that to stick in their long-term memory.
So smell and taste is the rate for doing this. But then the long-term hope is that they then, because they care about and understand the organisms around them, they start wondering about how their actions actually impact those things around them.
[01:15:17] Michael: so I haven’t had a guest say that yet. That’s really fascinating to me because there’s so much research about how long-term memories are formed tying into, a malt multi-sensory sort of inputs. And I’ve never heard it put quite the way you just put it in, especially in terms of going out and showing people nature.
Because I do see to your point, I do see a lot of people trying to show a bird, but that’s easier said than done. You think birds are everywhere. This will be easy, but 90% of the time they’re far away or they’re moving or obscured by a Bush. And if someone’s not very good with binoculars, they’re not going to see it.
but, But you have all these other things out there, like the mushrooms, or like a plant gall or rust on a coyote brush or whatever the case might be. Not that you want to taste those necessarily, but.
[01:16:04] Damon: Yeah. You could there better. I’m just gonna put it out there. But it’s, I know it’s interesting because as humans, like half of our brain capacity is for processing digital information, right? So that’s also why a lot of the tech we work with it’s very visual and audio, right. it’s going after that chunk that we already use a lot of, but all of that gets highly processed in the brain.
It goes through the thalamus where things like scent, it gets to junk pass it, it doesn’t go through that filter. And so we know that from a neurology point of view for humans, scent is a thing that really is tied well to long-term memory. And that’s why, especially like this time of year, right?
Christmas time people go places, they smell things. And oh, that reminds me of my family getting together . And that’s why I like to lean upon those other senses, my take people out. Cause I think it it rounds out that whole emotion that then ultimately leads into like long-term memory and hopefully into caring right about that space about those organisms.
[01:16:59] Michael: and not the springboard too much off of what you said, but literally last week I was at a conference and there was a presentation about how to integrate senses into video presentations for this very same reason. And there were a lot of really interesting tools that were discussed about how, if you plan your presentation in advance, you can find analogs that people can grab at home.
Something maybe tastes a little bit like pepper or smells a little bit like cinnamon or whatever. So you can have your participants go collect these things and it. And and integrate that into the presentation to help build those long-term memories beyond just sort of the boring presentation.
So I haven’t tried it yet myself, but I thought it sounded like an interesting way to do exactly what you’re talking about in the virtual world.
[01:17:46] Damon: And interesting me that I think that really helps round out, people pulling that into their long-term memory. Cause we know that you need kind of emotional stuff in order to really get good long-term memory formation. And so being able to find ways that visual audio you can tap into, or at least the fringe on those other ones really helps.
I know with like mushrooms a lot of time, a good portion of identification is smells. And it’s really interesting talking to a bunch of my colleagues about smells because once we start talking, you’ll see a bunch of people will start moving their mouths because even just talking about it, the language gets them to process that past memory of the smell.
And you can see people’s like mouse moving and you’re like, I know what’s going on in there.
[01:18:29] Michael: that’s really interesting. You seem to always have a lot going on. I’m curious about what other upcoming projects you might have, any presentations, any any things you want to point people at that’s on your short term radar?
[01:18:44] Damon: What that kind of, like two things on the short-term radar I’m gonna be going to summer camp for the first time this year, which has this kind of well-known mycological get together on the Sonoma coast. And there’s somebody from Davis had reached out to me this past year about carbohydrates sequencing, which is like this new technology that this guy actually developed as his PhD.
And he was like really interested in this in fungi. He’s we’re mainly studying this in food. , he’s like, I’m really interested in funding July. So I heard that you might have an herbarium that I could get access to were a FUM Gary. And I was like actually, yeah, I do. And so I pick stuff through, as much of the taxonomy as I had, at, in hand at home and sent it over to him.
And so he’s been processing that data and we’re going to release that at this meeting, which before. And then maybe open this up as a community science project. We can find a way to make this an easy pipeline. And then the other one that is kind of, I can’t wait to get back at it is I was running a program called barcode the lake for lake Merritt in Oakland and due to some issues with the city and then the pandemic things that kind of slowed down.
But ultimately this was an opportunity for anybody in Oakland to come in, find an organism at lake merit. And then we would do this molecular work on it and try and do DNA sequencing to basically have an archive of what is that lake merit, but with a molecular lens. And so we’d only really processed a handful of samples before they shut down.
And so I’m excited to get that kick started
[01:20:11] Michael: Yeah. And lake Merritt, such an interesting place to begin with too.
[01:20:14] Damon: Yeah, it really is.
[01:20:16] Michael: So if people want to follow your work or get updates on some of these projects, where can they go?
[01:20:21] Damon: California is center for natural history is a kind of nonprofit group that I do a lot of my nationalist work underneath. And so you can easily look them up online. Otherwise just at Damon Tai on I naturalist or Instagram are probably the easiest ways to keep up with what I’m seeing or what projects I’m working on.
[01:20:41] Michael: And Ty is spelled T I G H E. So yeah, and I do definitely recommend if you’re a naturalist to follow both of those, because you’re a great photographer, among other things. And then the things that you find and your experience really shine through in both of those platforms. All right. So this really has been my my head is spinning a bit from all the things that we touched on.
[01:21:04] Damon: Yeah.
[01:21:05] Michael: but it was a ton of fun.
And I thank you for spending the extra time to cover everything today.
[01:21:11] Damon: Yeah, you got it.