“We eat about two kilograms of soil in our lifetimes. How many spores do we ingest along with it?” She shook her head, the beads on the ends of her graying braids clattering, then met my eyes for the first time since she’d poured tea and offered store-bought cookies on a chipped plate. “How many of those spores survive?”
I looked away, uneasy, instead scanning her bookshelves, painted in crayon-box colors but stuffed with textbooks and journals. I’d sought out Idra Antwell because she was a world-renowned expert on fungal ecology, and because nobody had seen her in years. She was an expert, but not omniscient. She couldn’t see inside me.
“I did my PhD at Utah State, working on endophyte fungi in grasses. Those are fungi that live inside plants,” Idra added. “They benefit the plant, often by helping it survive drought. The plant feeds the fungus its sugars.” I had told her I was doing an article on fungal ecology for Discover. She was reluctant to share her address, but I’ve always been persuasive.
“We spent a lot of time in the field taking plant and soil samples. I was always looking for help. It became a running joke: the other grad students had a pool on how long each new assistant would last. Everything from mono to bicycle accidents.” She glanced toward her diploma, hanging amid a welter of photographs of people and fungi.
“That’s when I met Jacob. He was in entomology, but he helped me because I was desperate. We got married right after we both finished our doctorates, then moved to Fort Collins and had Alexandra.” She waved her mug toward a photo of a laughing couple chasing a toddler. “I kept working on endophytes, developing methods to track fungal connections. Did you know these fungi spread from root to root, binding the grassland into a huge network? Neither did anyone else.
“We already knew there were fungi inside most plants. What was new was being able to follow the linkages. Just taking soil cores or digging up plants destroys that structure.” Idra smiled for the first time, proud of her accomplishments despite everything.
“Dr. Antwell, that’s fascinating, but it isn’t enough to take to my editor. Do fungi like that live other places?” I’d become obsessed with her research, had read everything she had ever published. Her papers were all about grasses, but there were hints of more. I needed to find out how much she knew, what she might have realized.
“I tested Jacob’s grasshoppers one day, on a whim. So much science happens that way. Everything churns in the back of your brain until something pops out.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen that. Did you publish?”
Idra rose, stroking the spines of one book then another like old friends. “No, my paper was rejected. Then Jacob died, and I put it aside.” Jacob died in a car crash, reckless driving. Alexandra had been with him. Idra had only decided to stay home at the last minute.
She pulled up a series of microscope images on an old-fashioned LCD screen. “These are my grasses, and this is a grasshopper. See the hyphae in both?” She pointed at the squiggles where the fungus wrapped filaments around the cells, penetrated them.
“This next sample was from Jacob. He never knew I took it.” It showed the same fungal squiggles. “But this is mine.” No squiggles.
“I couldn’t get that published either. It was never actually rejected: the manuscript got lost, or the editor was sick, always something.” Idra waved toward the papers piled beside the monitor. “I’ve been taking tissue samples for years, from all my biology students. Almost everyone is infected: endohuman fungi, I suppose you could say. I’m going to put it all online.”
I’d gotten here just in time. “That’s amazing. Do you have any ideas about what all those fungi are doing?”
“I don’t even know if they’re symbiotes or parasites. If they were doing something obvious we’d notice. Like the fungus Ophiocordyceps. It turns infected ants into zombies so they’ll spread more spores. We’d notice zombie humans, but what about more subtle behavioral changes? Or maybe they help us. Endophytes are good for the plants they live in, though not for the things that eat them.”
“What happens?” I asked, curious despite myself. I didn’t know as much as you might think about this topic.
“One gruesome example is when cattle eat too much infected fescue. Toxins from the grass reduce circulation to their extremities. In the worst cases, their tail and hooves fall off.” Idra grinned. “How would we know? Not enough things eat humans any more.
“How can everyone but you have fungi in them?”
“Genetics maybe, but I don’t have any living relatives for comparison.” That’s what I had thought, but her confirmation reassured me. I wouldn’t have to try to track them down. “I don’t feel any different.” I wondered if that was really true. Surely she would have seen some difference, in travel patterns, or reckless behavior, or forgetfulness. Infected people weren’t usually aware, but their behavior changed anyway. Only a few knew about the hyphae penetrating their nervous systems, not that they could do anything about it.
“We rely on fungi for decomposition,” I said, “but it sounds like they could be running the world, all the bits fitting together like a giant biological computer.”
“That seems a bit extreme,” Idra replied, “but possible. That’s why I’m putting my findings online. More scientists need to look into this.”
“I think we might all be happier not knowing.” She watched me stand, not understanding until I grabbed her. It takes longer than you’d think to strangle an old woman. I loaded her papers into my satchel and tucked her computer in on top.
I dragged Idra out past the garden into the grassland. Finally the fungi would have her.
Sarah Goslee relates to the world by figuring things out and writing about them. She writes science fiction and science nonfiction, and has done fieldwork with endophytic fungi.
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