MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Last month, a California woman died and five family members fell seriously ill after eating mushrooms they had picked in the woods. Health officials believe the culprit was the death cap mushroom, the most common cause of deadly mushroom poisoning in the United States.
A biologist named Anne Pringle is trying to understand why the death cap mushroom is suddenly spreading like crazy in California. She is just starting her career at Harvard University. It's a wonderful job that lets her follow her passion for fungus. It's also a huge challenge.
NPR's Richard Harris has her story.
RICHARD HARRIS: When Anne Pringle moved from a postdoctoral fellowship at Berkeley to a Harvard professorship in the fall of 2005, she created an unusual bicoastal relationship. Her husband and two young daughters came with her to Massachusetts, but the fungus that holds her fascination stayed behind in California. So in December, she spent one last evening with David and the girls before heading west for a weeklong visit.
(Soundbite of a baby)
HARRIS: Fungus has clearly crept into the fabric of this family. Even three-year-old Penelope has developed a rather sophisticated knowledge of mushrooms.
Professor ANNE PRINGLE (Biologist): Okay, what's that on your placemat? What's that mushroom?
Ms. PENELOPE PRINGLE (Daughter of Anne Pringle): Black trumpets.
Professor PRINGLE: Are they your favorite? What's your favorite mushroom?
Ms. P. PRINGLE: The boletes.
Professor PRINGLE: The boletes.
HARRIS: The boletes are your favorite, oh. Do you like to eat mushrooms?
Ms. P. PRINGLE: No. I hate mushrooms.
HARRIS: At least to eat, which is probably just as well, since many of the mushrooms this family goes out to the woods to collect are deadly poison. This time the family will stay behind as Anne Pringles sets off for California.
Professor PRINGLE: So, where is momma going tomorrow.
Ms. P. PRINGLE: California.
Professor PRINGLE: I'm going to miss you, baby.
Ms. P. PRINGLE: I'm going to miss you.
Professor PRINGLE: Oh, yeah. Okay?
Ms. P. PRINGLE: Are we going to be able to talk?
Professor PRINGLE: I'll call you on the phone everyday. Okay?
Ms. P. PRINGLE: But everyday, in the morning -
Professor PRINGLE: It's not world famous Anne Pringle. Harvard professor is taking out the trash at the hostel at Point Reyes.
HARRIS: Yes, the youth hostel at the Point Reyes National Seashore. This area is a hotspot for the rapidly spreading death cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides. Pringle hasn't yet been able to raise any grant money for her research into this runaway species, so she is traveling on the cheap, bedding down in bunk rooms with her postdoc and graduate student.
The hostel manager figured a mushroom scientist would be the logical person to take out the compost.
Professor PRINGLE: Which is true. I can handle compost, too. There's actually heat, those signs are in compost piles. Oh, my. See that kind of (unintelligible) culture on the side?
HARRIS: The green looking thing is the fungus?
Professor PRINGLE: Yes.
HARRIS: She dumps the banana peels and wilted lettuce and returns the bucket to hostel manager Bob Bayes(ph). Staying at the hostel does have a benefit. Bayes has let Anne Pringle turned the dining room into a lab. They've set up a microscope, laptops and a mushroom dryer.
Professor PRINGLE: Hey Bob, would you mind if we left our mushroom dryer while we're gone for the day?
Mr. BOB BAYES: No, not at all. Do you need it going all day?
Professor PRINGLE: Yeah.
Mr. BAYES: Okay, well just leave it there.
Professor PRINGLE: It's perfectly safe as long as it's on low heat. So as soon as everybody is ready, we'll go.
HARRIS: And soon, she, Franck Richard(ph) and Ben Wolfe are off to look for mushrooms.
Professor PRINGLE: Here comes the rain.
HARRIS: Undaunted, the research teams sets off along a path lined with bay laurel trees, sword ferns and oaks dripping with nets of lichen.
Professor PRINGLE: Why don't we split up. Then you and Frank want to stay and take one -
Mr. BEN WOLFE: Yep.
Professor PRINGLE: - and then get litter. It looks so beautiful.
Mr. WOLFE: Yeah.
HARRIS: Tomales Bay, a narrow crease formed by the San Andreas Fault, peeks through the rain-soaked foliage.
Professor PRINGLE: (Unintelligible)
HARRIS: She already sees mushrooms.
Professor PRINGLE: Yeah. They're not just any, they're phalloides. Yeah. Everywhere. Wow, so here it is, the deadly Amanita phalloides.
HARRIS: We kneel down and look at a fist-sized mushroom, white with a tinge of green, sitting in a fleshy cup in the ground. There's a ring around the stem.
HARRIS: It seems such an obscure thing to get passionate about. Yet clearly you are. How did that come about?
Professor PRINGLE: It's a challenge to study something that's so different from you. Because, you know, a fungus is not a human. It's not an animal. And it doesn't act the same way, so you really have to think hard and challenge your assumptions about everything that it's doing. It's a challenge and it's really appealing to me.
HARRIS: Recently, Pringle did some fancy detective work with old books and newfangled DNA techniques to prove that the death cap mushroom is actually an invader from Europe. People accidentally brought it here on the roots of imported trees many decades ago.
Now that it's spreading like crazy, Anne Pringle is trying to figure out what native species it might be crowding out in the process. Truth be told, scientists think they haven't even identified 95 percent of the fungi in the world, let alone what's growing here.
Professor PRINGLE: So for every species that we have a name for, there are many, many more species that we don't have a name for. So there's a lot we don't know. But yet, here we have this thing that by all accounts is taking over a habitat. We're losing something that we haven't even had a chance to discover yet. And that's not the tropics, it's Northern California.
HARRIS: And as if to prove this point, later on, we round a corner on the trail and come across her postdoc, Franck Richard, belly down in an alder swamp.
Mr. FRANCK RICHARD (Postdoc Assistant): Something got you. Run. Go.
HARRIS: He's not hurt, but ecstatic. Richard's lab back in France studies fungi that only grow in alder patches. And here, on Point Reyes, he finds something similar to the European species but clearly different. In fact, it's a species unknown to science. And not just one, another and then another.
Mr. RICHARD: Okay, I got it. I got it. Look, it's purple. This is pretty.
Professor PRINGLE: Oh, it's so small. Wow, it's lovely. It's very beautiful.
HARRIS: Anne Pringle and grad student Ben Wolfe joined in the hunt, and with little effort, they find eight new undiscovered species. One looks like a small gray potato. Another is luminous white.
Professor PRINGLE: I told you. It's like an Easter egg hunt everyday.
Mr. WOLFE: Think we don't -
Professor PRINGLE: Hey Ben, look at this.
Mr. WOLFE: Oh, wow. Oh, look at the bottom.
Professor PRINGLE: Yeah, look at the fuzz and look at the gray color.
Mr. WOLFE: And the color. It's white. That's amazing.
Professor PRINGLE: Isn't that beautiful. I think that's my favorite mushroom -
Mr. WOLFE: It's really cool.
Professor PRINGLE: - apart from phalloides, maybe.
Mr. WOLFE: You have a nice collection of butterflies and sticks on your back.
Professor PRINGLE: Oh, lovely. Great.
HARRIS: An honest days work.
Professor PRINGLE: Yeah. It's not even work. It's not work. It's something else. I don't know what it is.
HARRIS: The rain comes in squalls as the scientists fan out across their study area. This is good. Fungi usually live invisibly underground, threads slinking through the soil. But rain coaxes the fungus to sprout mushrooms. Oddly enough, mushrooms are really umbrellas providing shelter for the spores that hide under the cap. Those spores have to stay dry. Fortunately, we don't.
You seem utterly undisturbed by the rain. You're not even bothering with your hood.
Professor PRINGLE: I love to be outside. I could care less what its like.
HARRIS: Anne Pringle's job today is to collect some of the invading death caps. But as we head up the trail, she spots a russula mushroom in the undergrowth.
Professor PRINGLE: These are fun mushrooms. If you throw them against a tree, they'll smash into a million pieces. They're brittle like crackers. Russula-smashing is one of Zoe's favorite activities.
HARRIS: Pretty good.
Professor PRINGLE: If you wanted to save that mushroom, that's a terrible field characteristic because you just splattered it into thousand of pieces.
HARRIS: Mushrooms typically rely on plants as partners. They usually play fair with their hosts. They bring the trees nitrogen and take some carbon in return. But Pringle wonders whether the death cap is breaking that rule. One hypothesis is it is doing so well here because it has found a way to cheat the oak trees it lives on. It could be taking nutrients without giving anything back.
She plunges a trowel deep into the soil to collect the tree roots as well as the mushrooms.
Professor PRINGLE: Okay, look, wow, the earthworms are going nuts. Hi. Look, he's like, that was my home, but you took it away. It's like "James and the Giant Peach."
HARRIS: She handles the mushroom so casually, it's startling to think that just a small piece of this is enough to melt your liver and kill you.
Professor PRINGLE: It's not a pleasant death.
HARRIS: She admits that the creepy aspect of the death cap mushroom is part of the allure.
Professor PRINGLE: It is, of course, fun that there's such a deep cultural history associated with this mushroom. You know, you can read about this emperor who was poisoned by eating an Amanita phalloides, or people tell you that it smells like death. And, you know, people are fascinated by this mushroom and the fact that it kills you. There's no denying that. Some people - my friends don't like it when I use the word charismatic, they prefer to use the word notorious, which is fair enough. But I, actually, find it charismatic.
HARRIS: As the day progresses, Pringle's fingernails get dirtier and dirtier and she gets more and more absorbed into the damp embrace of the world around her.
Professor PRINGLE: Oh, look at the eggs.
HARRIS: What are they?
Professor PRINGLE: They're eggs of somebody but I don't know who? Insects or something.
HARRIS: Yeah. I think you might have one of those eggs in your hair.
Professor PRINGLE: Yeah. I've had enough of head lice this year.
HARRIS: Not even a Harvard professor's family gets a pass on that undiscriminating pest.
Professor PRINGLE: But, you know, the girls were really excited about their head lice in the end because we get - we've identified all stages of the life cycle. And we could do little experiments with the head lice and hair and the water and see the head lice swim to the hair and cling onto it - that was pretty funny.
HARRIS: They really are little naturals.
Professor PRINGLE: Yeah. Yeah. Yes, they really are, there's no doubt.
HARRIS: Then, suddenly the conversation turns serious.
Professor PRINGLE: I don't want my kids to be scientists.
HARRIS: You don't?
Professor PRINGLE: No. Not unless they really want it. It's hard, you know. I don't think you should do it unless you really feel passionately about what you do. And if they feel passionately, then that's okay, but I'm not going to push them in this direction.
HARRIS: Much as she loves what she does, she does feel the pressure of her young scientific career. In about five years, Pringle will be asked to write her own job description. Harvard University will then advertise that job, and if she's judged the best applicant, she'll get tenure. Otherwise, it will be time to move on.
Professor PRINGLE: I talked to a group of undergraduates the other day, and you know, I think as far as they were concerned, I've made it. I have my job, that was it. My life is set. It was interesting to have that conversation because I started to tell them, you know, this is the most dangerous time of my career, as a matter of fact, this time between having a job and getting tenure. So this is really flying blind in lots of ways. It's okay, though, I'm comfortable with that. Yeah.
HARRIS: Yeah. When you pick a project like this or a topic like this, do you think well, gee, what does this going to mean for tenure and various sorts of concrete or career things?
Professor PRINGLE: No, I don't care so much about those things. I care about finding important problems and solving them.
HARRIS: And here, digging up death caps in the dripping California woods, she's doing just that.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
NORRIS: A little from the NPR mushroom desk - one more reason to study them -possible medicinal uses. Researchers at the University of Western Sydney in Australia, for instance, want to know if a particular fungus will help treat diabetes.
SIEGEL: They're starting an experiment with a mushroom called the Gandoderma lucidum. It's sometimes called the king of herbs and it's already used in Chinese medicine.
NORRIS: Scientists wonder if it could help reduce blood sugar. In Boston, another study tests whether a mushroom helps fight cancer.
SIEGEL: This one's called Phillinus linteus. A study published in the British Cancer Journal indicates an extract seems to make some cancer cells, in labs at least, easier to kill. No way of knowing if those approaches would work in animals, let alone in people.
NORRIS: None of that has helped drive up worldwide mushroom prices. There's report this week that British mushroom companies are in financial trouble.
SIEGEL: And in Ukraine, are down almost 30 percent. That could be related to the strong growth of another European mushroom power, Poland.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.