ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Even if you have never actually eaten a Twinkie, you undoubtedly grew up seeing these little yellow cakes in the store or in TV ads.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Me and my Twinkies cake are super well-known, sponge cake and filling with a taste all its own from Hostess.
SHAPIRO: Super well-known. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has the story of one box of Twinkies that contained a surprise that sent two scientists on a quest.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Colin Purrington lives in Pennsylvania. And one day, for sentimental reasons, he bought Twinkies.
COLIN PURRINGTON: Well, this was back in 2012. I'm sure I heard on NPR that the company Hostess that makes Twinkies was going bankrupt.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For eight years, the Twinkies sat in his basement. But last week, he had a sugar craving.
PURRINGTON: If you're in a house with no desserts, you get desperate.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, after eight years, why reach for the Twinkies now?
PURRINGTON: I was just so bored with the pandemic.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The official shelf life for Twinkies is 45 days. But like many people, Purrington believed Twinkies are basically immortal. He removed a Twinkie from the box, unwrapped it. He took a bite and retched.
PURRINGTON: It tasted like old sock - not that I've ever eaten old sock.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he examined the other Twinkies. Two looked weird. One had a dark-colored blemish the size of a quarter. The other Twinkie was completely transformed. It was gray, shrunken and wrinkly.
PURRINGTON: It looked like a shriveled morel mushroom, the dried ones you can buy.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He posted photos on Twitter, and they caught the attention of two scientists - Brian Lovett and Matt Kasson. At West Virginia University, they study fungi. Kasson says fungi are everywhere and have an amazing ability to break down all kinds of substances.
MATT KASSON: You know, you find fungi growing on jet fuel.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In the past, their lab has tested how well molds grow in Peeps, the classic Easter treat. Kasson says fungi found the Peeps challenging.
KASSON: In a way, they're kind of like an extreme environment, right? The food industry has crafted the ability to make foods that have a long shelf life.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So these researchers were intrigued by the old Twinkies, and Purrington happily mailed them to the lab. Kasson used a bone biopsy tool to sort of drill through the tough outer layer of the gray mummified Twinkie.
KASSON: I think it hit the icing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hitting the soft filling was a surprise. They thought it would be all hard. Lovett says, whatever ate the Twinkie...
BRIAN LOVETT: It seems that the fungus was more interested in the cake on the outside than the filling on the inside.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They put the Twinkie samples in lab dishes with nutrients commonly used to grow fungi. From that one Twinkie marred with a dark circle of mold, they found out it was a very common indoor fungus. But from the mummified Twinkie, they have no results. Lovett says none of its fungi has grown yet.
LOVETT: It may be that we don't have any living spores.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They're not giving up. They'll fill lab dishes with all kinds of sweet concoctions to try to coax something back to life from the mysterious Twinkie mummy because people just seem fascinated by this gray, shriveled snack cake. Kasson says it's such a harsh contrast to the golden Twinkie that lives in our memories.
KASSON: When those memories are tainted by, like, a visual reality like the Twinkie experiment, we're kind of, like, caught off guard. And we're like, wait. No, that's a symbol of my childhood; you can't take that from me, too.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But nothing lasts forever - not Twinkies, not us. The scientists point out that, like these Twinkies, someday even we will be food for fungi.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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