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Cornell's mycology museum harbors good, bad and macabre fungi By Roger Segelken December 9, 2004 news.cornell.edu
Not all the fungal specimens in the mycology collection at Cornell's Plant Pathology Herbarium would make good mushroom soup. Some specimens are unsightly splotches on sick plant leaves. And others are downright macabre (like the pathogenic fungi that eviscerate insects before rising above the exoskeleton shells of their meals, for example). But there is much to appreciate here, particularly to the eyes of a trained mycologist.
"There's a lot of hidden beauty here, especially if you're willing to look through the microscope," said Kathie T. Hodge, the assistant professor of mycology in the agriculture college's Department of Plant Pathology, as well as director of the 400,000-specimen collection.
One hundred and twenty years' worth of materials have arrived from around the world -- from all continents except Antarctica -- to build what is now the fourth largest mycological herbarium in North America. Here there are more than 7,000 so-called type specimens, the fungi that were the first of their kind to be described, named and deposited for future reference and comparison. Over 500 new species of fungi have been described by Cornell professors over the years, and the university has trained more mycologists than any other institution in North America.
Those mycologists have their work cut out for them, because as many as 90 percent of fungal species alive on Earth today have yet to be described or named, Hodge said, adding: "Mycology is thus one of the last great frontiers of biology. Even here in Ithaca, mycologists continue to discover new species of fungi, both large and small. In the tropics, new species abound. A primary function of this and other herbaria is to document the distribution and variety of the world's known biodiversity, and to allow comparison of putative new species with those already known."
It's not your average case of athlete's foot -- this fungal infection proved fatal to an unfortunate ant. Kent Loeffler
Hodge said it's just as well her collection is not located in the Hotel School, "because most of our fungi are not edible. The reason our collection is in a plant pathology department, where scientists study sick plants and students learn to do the same, is that fungi are the leading cause of plant disease in agriculture and forestry."
She points to two examples that make gardeners cringe: powdery mildew on roses, which is caused by the fungus Sphaerotheca pannosa, and corn smut, the even uglier result of the fungus Ustilago maydis. Despite their villainous reputations, both of these fungi have a peculiar beauty up close. The fruits of powdery mildews look like miniature suns with glorious fringes of coiled or spiky rays. And corn smut, which leads American farmers to destroy infected ears, is a culinary delicacy in Mexico under the name huitlacoche.
Proof that fungi can be artsy is found in the herbarium's 60,000 historical photographs. There are pictures of toadstools both noble and humble, plant disease symptoms that are prettier than the plants the fungi infected, and New York state agricultural workers and their equipment dating back to the 1880s. One such is "Pearl and Puffballs 2" by Howard Lyon, a departmental photographer at Cornell beginning in the 1950s who found a Norman Rockwellesque University of Maine professor named Pearl Farr at a laboratory bench with a 24.5-pound Calvatia gigantea.
Lyon was the second of three long-tenured departmental photographers, a post that was invented and filled by Willis Fisher for 43 years, beginning in 1907, and has been carried on by Kent Loeffler since 1985.
One noted contributor to the archive of fungal pictures, though not an official photographer, offers proof that mycological collecting can be hazardous to one's health; Professor of Botany G.F. Atkinson, an 1885 graduate of the university, was gathering fungi near Washington state's Mount Rainier when he contracted pneumonia and died in 1918.
Another collector, Shu Chun Teng, who is regarded as the most important systematic mycologist in Chinese scientific history, also came to a sad end. Teng had attended Cornell in the 1920s but returned to China, without completing his Ph.D., to begin a forest-geography survey of the Yellow River region. Traveling by horseback and working from a tent, Teng collected fungal specimens, took detailed notes and made meticulous drawing of each specimen's various forms.
One example of the research-related photos in the Plant Pathology Herbarium archive is this 1950s-era image by former departmental photographer Howard Lyon that shows visiting University of Maine Professor Pearl Farr with a 24.5-pound puffball. Photo provided by Plant Pathology Herbarium
Teng's specimens became part of China's national fungi collection, and he arranged for parts of that collection to be spirited out of the country during the Japanese invasion that preceded World War II. A portion of the Chinese collection was sent to Cornell. After the war, Teng returned to teaching and founded the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Mycology Laboratory. Too soon he was caught up in the Cultural Revolution, which branded Teng as a "counter-revolutionary academic authority." Teng and his family were imprisoned and tortured; he died in 1970 of illness incurred during his ordeal.
Teng's Cornell mentor, H.H. Whetzel, fared better. An authority on Discomycetes, or cup fungi, Whetzel added many specimens to the herbarium collection and became the chair of North America's first department of plant pathology. A seminar room is named in his honor, just down the hall from the Plant Pathology Herbarium offices on the fourth floor of the Plant Sciences Building.
Science aside, a few local fungi pass through the herbarium on the way to the saucepan. Each spring the herbarium, under Hodge's leadership, runs Ithaca's First Morel Contest, a competitive hunt for earliest emergence of what some aficionados insist is the tastiest of all mushrooms. This year Kathryn Bushley took honors for the first yellow morel on May 2, while Gianna Sassi discovered 2004's earliest black morel three days later.
Students who wish to sharpen their morel-finding skills would do well to take one of the several mycology classes offered at Cornell: George Hudler's Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds (PLPA 201), Hodge's Field Mycology (PLPA319); Hodge's Introductory Mycology (PLPA309); or Michael Milgroom's class Basic Plant Pathology (PLPA 401) would each make good starts.
Unlike scientific collectors of fungi, who are required to list the precise location of their discovered specimens, often-secretive morel hunters are notoriously vague about where they found their quarry, according to Hodge. "Our policy is circumspection, but there are benefits. Mycology is one of the few sciences," she said, "where we're allowed to eat our subjects."