MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
EMILY KWONG, HOST:
Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here with NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce. Hey, Nell.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey, Emily.
KWONG: So today's story starts with a sugar craving.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. The guy with the craving - this happened a couple of weeks back - was Colin Purrington, who lives in Pennsylvania.
COLIN PURRINGTON: If you're in a house with no dessert, you get desperate.
KWONG: Yeah. That's why I maintain an emergency chocolate stash at all times - many kinds of chocolate. So what did Colin do?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So Colin does not have an emergency stash of chocolate. It would be good for him, maybe, if he did. His dessert pantry was totally bare. So for some reason, maybe, you know, pandemic-related boredom, he decided his best option was an eight-year-old box of Twinkies in his basement.
KWONG: That is a little strange. Why would he have that box of Twinkies?
PURRINGTON: Well, this was back in 2012. I'm sure I heard on NPR that the company Hostess that makes Twinkies was going bankrupt.
KWONG: OK, so we're responsible for this.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. You know, he was saying he just wanted to preserve a little history. He heard Hostess might go out of business. And, you know, they are back. Twinkies are back. But we've all heard this idea that Twinkies basically never expire. They basically, you know, live forever. They never go bad.
KWONG: Yeah, no, I remember hearing this as a kid. It's like the apocalypse pastry of choice.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, well, if you've got them in your emergency bunker, you will be disappointed because that is completely not true. The official shelf life is 45 days. But Colin, you know, like a lot of people - he thought they last forever. So he went down there, got one, unwrapped it. It looked pretty normal. So he took a bite.
PURRINGTON: It tasted like old sock - not that I've ever eaten old sock.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I love that he feels like he has to clarify that he's not eaten old sock, just for the record.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he examines the other Twinkies. And two of them looked really weird. One of them had this dark-colored blemish the size of a quarter. And the other Twinkie, the main Twinkie we're talking about today, was completely transformed. It was gray and shrunken and all wrinkly.
PURRINGTON: It looked like a shriveled morel mushroom, the dried ones you can buy.
KWONG: This is a really accurate explanation because if you look at the link in our episode notes, dear listener, you can see a photo of this Twinkie. It kind of looks mummified.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, it's all shriveled and gray. It's got folds in its surface. It looks maybe a little bit like a brain...
GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...You know, a long one, like an oblong Twinkie.
KWONG: (Laughter) Ew.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's still got that sort of long shape.
KWONG: So is this, like, a mummified dessert for Halloween?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, you know, actually, if you look at those, like, magazines, Halloween-themed magazines, you see, you know, recipes for desserts where you take a Twinkie and you put icing on it to make it look like a mummy.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But no, this is like a real mummy Twinkie. This is like a frightening mummy Twinkie. And this Twinkie looked so unusual that it attracted the attention of a couple of scientists who started to study this.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And when they saw this Twinkie, their goal was to take whatever did this to the snack cake and bring it back to life.
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Today on the show, the mystery of the mummified Twinkie. We'll meet the scientists trying to figure it out and hear why they're so interested in the first place. You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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KWONG: OK, Nell, so, naturally, Colin Purrington in Pennsylvania wanted the world to know about his accidental fungal experiment involving Twinkies. So what happened next?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he posted photos on Twitter. And they were seen by two scientists, Brian Lovett and Matt Kasson. At West Virginia University, they study fungi. Kasson says fungi are everywhere, and they have this amazing ability to break down all kinds of substances.
MATT KASSON: You know, you find fungi growing on jet fuel.
KWONG: Wow. So he means that fungi can grow on pretty much anything and everything.
KASSON: Yeah. And in the past, their lab has tested how well they grow in Peeps, you know, that classic marshmallow treat.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kasson says fungi found the Peeps challenging because, you know, they don't have a lot of water in them.
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: You know, I could test that out right now. I got some old Peeps in my house my kid kept from Easter, like, years ago. But anyway, back to the Twinkies. So these researchers were intrigued by Colin's post on Twitter. And Colin was only too happy to mail his Twinkies right to their lab. They suspected that whatever had mummified the Twinkie was some kind of fungus, but they wanted to confirm that and then find out exactly what kind of fungus.
KWONG: OK, so Twinkie mummy gets shipped to the lab. Obviously, they had to open it up, I'm guessing. And as I look at the photo, the plastic wrapping around the shriveled Twinkie looks like it's been vacuum sealed, like it's sucked inward, like (vocalizing).
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. Right. So the scientists thought maybe the fungus got in before the package was sealed. And then as it grew, the fungus was using up more air or oxygen than it was putting out. I mean, here's how Lovett described it.
BRIAN LOVETT: You end up with a vacuum. And very well that vacuum may have halted the fungus's ability to continue to grow. We just have the snapshot of what we were sent. But who knows if this process occurred five years ago, and he had just only noticed it now.
KWONG: Yeah, five years - that's 40 times the shelf life of a Twinkie.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: An eternity for a Twinkie. Anyway, they had expected this horrific smell to hit them when they opened the packaging.
LOVETT: I thought the smell would possibly kill one of us. But because of the mummification, there really was no smell at all, which was really a pleasant surprise.
KWONG: So the Twinkie mummy is unwrapped - smells like nothing. What happened next?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, they took a quick look with a magnifying scope and just saw some signs of fungal spore formation on the Twinkie. So that suggested a fungus of some kind. And the next step was to take a sample. So Kasson used a bone biopsy tool to sort of drill through the tough outer layer of this gray, mummified Twinkie.
KASSON: We certainly hit the marrow of the Twinkie and quickly realized that there was still some cream filling on the inside.
KWONG: What? So the inside was still cream filled?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. And that was a surprise. They thought it would be sort of hard all the way through.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lovett says whatever did this to the Twinkie...
LOVETT: It seems that the fungus was more interested in the cake on the outside than the filling on the inside.
KWONG: See. This is a smart fungus because cake is clearly the superior part of the Twinkie - same with Oreos, same with cupcakes. You know what I'm talking about, right, Nell?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I don't know. To me, it's, like, the combination of two things that's key. So I can't really separate them in my mind.
KWONG: That's fair. I accept that. So the scientists have taken samples from the Twinkie. How do they go about determining what kind of fungus is growing on it?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They actually sampled multiple Twinkies, OK? So one was the mummified Twinkie we've been talking about. The other was the second Twinkie from Colin's box that was not mummified, the one that was just, you know, marred. It had that weird, little blemish on the outside of it. And then they had this control 'cause it's a scientific experiment. They need a scientific control, which was a - what they called an asymptomatic Twinkie from the same box. So they put those samples into lab dishes with nutrients commonly used to grow fungi. And from that little blemished Twinkie, the one with just the little mark, they were able to grow a very common indoor fungus called Cladosporium.
KWONG: Common indoor fungus.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. It's one of the most common airborne molds worldwide.
KWONG: OK. So what about from the mummified Twinkie?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: OK, so that's where it gets even more interesting. Lovett says they have not been able to grow any fungus from that particular sample.
LOVETT: It may be that we don't have any living spores. Spores certainly die. And depending on the fungus, they can die very quickly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And remember - because the Twinkie had been sort of vacuum sealed by whatever was going on there, you know, it seems like it couldn't grow anymore inside its wrapping.
KWONG: So there's truly perhaps no life in this Twinkie?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, the scientists, you know, weren't going to let that stop them. They took DNA samples from both the marred and the mummified Twinkies. And they sent it off to a DNA sequencing company. And 12 hours later, they got the results back. The marred Twinkie was a 99.6% match to a fungus called Cladosporium xylophilum. The mummified Twinkie was 81% similar to a closely related Cladosporium species, Cladosporium tenuissimum. Kasson says DNA from the mummified Twinkie was pretty degraded. So they actually probably are the same fungus.
LOVETT: I'm so amazed they were able to identify these fungi from these Twinkies. Is the mystery of the Twinkie over?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I remain confident that science will continue. Already, one researcher, Kate Wallace (ph) at the University of Illinois, contacted them and asked for a bit of the mummified Twinkie that she wants to put in a scanning electron microscope, one that can get really, really close-up images and hopefully, you know, see something cool. And Kasson says, you know, he's not turning his lab entirely over to Twinkie studies, but, you know, they could still do some more research.
KASSON: We thought about inoculating some healthy Twinkies with some Cladosporium, maybe doing some transplants with the bone marrow biopsy tool, where we replace a healthy plug with a fungus-colonized plug and see what happens from there.
KWONG: This Twinkie line of research is just relentless. There's so many questions, still. I mean, what's the overall moral of the story here? - that you can try to hold on to the past, but nothing gold can stay, not even a Twinkie?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, that's one moral. I mean, another moral of the story is that Colin Purrington should've listened to his mother and had more respect for expiration dates. But, you know, people are really drawn to this myth that Twinkies are immortal. I should mention we did reach out to Hostess Brands for comment on this story, and I have not heard back from them at all. You know, the mummy Twinkie is this different kind of disturbing vision of what the future could hold for Twinkies and, you know, for all of us. I mean, Matt Kasson says this story seems to be gripping for people, maybe because the gray mummified Twinkie is such a dramatic contrast to this golden iconic 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: So basically, like you said, Emily, nothing lasts forever, you know? Here's Brian Lovett again.
LOVETT: We're living in a time where we're all really grappling with our mortality. Eventually, all of us are food for fungi. So seeing that is sort of facing the reality of our mortality and, you know, our destination.
KWONG: Nell, I did not expect a Twinkie experiment to be a meditation on the human condition. But there you have it. Thank you so much, Nell Greenfieldboyce.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: My pleasure.
KWONG: This episode was produced by Brent Baughman and Thomas Lu. It was edited by Gisele Grayson and fact checked by Ariela Zebede (ph). The engineer on this episode was Leo del Aguila. I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
Can we end this episode with the "Monster Mash" because it's all about working in a lab? (Singing) Surprise, he did the mash. He did the monster mash.
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