Corn Smut, Fairy Rings and Ergotoxicosis: Looking at plant diseases under a different lens. Plant diseases are a fascinating subject because they teach us about biology and cultural perspective. The study of plant diseases is called phytopathology; the anthropology of plant diseases is called ethnophytopathology.
The Plant Disease Triangle. Central to phytopathology (the study of plant diseases) is the Plant Disease Triangle. It is composed of a host (e.g. Zea mays), a pathogen (e.g. Ustilago maydis) and environmental conditions (e.g. rainy growing season) that lead to the development of disease.
Cultural perspective. Disease is often thought about as a particular abnormal condition—a disorder of a structure or function—that affects part or all of an organism… but what does it mean for something to be abnormal, or to be a disorder? Are we injecting our own bias into science?
Corn Smut (Ustilago maydis). In Canada and USA, corn smut is treated with fungicides and other methods in an attempt to eradicate it from fields. Its common name implies its undesirability.
Biology of smut fungi. The life cycle and biology of fungi are fascinating! Much to the demise of farmers, they are fantastic at replicating!
Huitlacoche. It turns out Corn Smut is actually edible. Not only that, it’s delicious and nutritious! For many farmers, it can be more lucrative than growing uninfected corn…try “Corn Truffle” on for a change.
Fairy rings are another fungal phenomenon thought about as a pest, especially in lawns and golf courses.
Fruiting Bodies (Mushrooms). What the apple is to the tree, the mushroom is to the fungus. These structures serve for propagation, and are made of dense hyphae. The bulk of the fungus exists underground, in a network of hyphae known as the mycelium.
Fairy Rings appear throughout Western European culture in art, folklore, mythology, and theatre. In today’s age, they are common in video games, often serving magical or decorative purposes.
Removing fairy rings from lawns and turfgrass is notoriously difficult. Come to think of it, the maintenance of lawns and golf courses in general is an uphill battle, originating as a way to show off status.
Lund Community Centre, working with King Stropharia. Much like the fairies in European folklore which invite us to dance ourselves into madness, mushrooms invite us to put away our lawnmowers and join the beautiful dance of diverse and resilient ecology.
Rye Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) is fascinating to think about from a biological and historical perspective.
Rye Ergot’s life cycle has secured it a place in our food supply for perpetuity. In Canada, Rye may contain up to 0.05% ergot sclerotia and still be considered top-grade.
Rye Ergot was a cause of devastating human disease throughout the Dark Ages. In certain parts of Europe, mass outbreaks of ergot poisoning occurred every 5-10 years! The latest documented case was in 1951, as told in the story of The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire.
The identity of this mysterious disease was finally linked to rye ergot poisoning in 1670, and rye ergot was finally identified as a fungus in 1853. Hip-hip-hooray for science!
The scientific study of rye ergot would bring forward such discoveries and isolations as histamine, acetylcholine, and vitamin D2. Its unique chemical backbone (lysergic acid) led to the development of drugs for the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease, labor-inducing drugs, drugs for migraine relief, drugs for cancer of the pituitary gland, and LSD—which would go on to change the course of psychiatry and shape the counterculture movements of the 60s.
Science is a tool for asking and answering questions. With corn smut, for example, we can ask how to get rid of it, or how to propagate it. With fairy rings, we can ask how to keep it out of golf courses, or we can ask if golf courses are sustainable. With rye ergot, we can ask how to eradicate it, or how to use it to bring forth a plethora of medicines. Science as a tool can help us answer all these questions, but the questions that we ask are ultimately up to us.
Ioni Wais – “Corn Smut, Fairy Rings and Ergotoxicosis”
by Andrew Bryant, 21 January 2016.
Ioni Wais is a relative newcomer to Powell River and somewhat difficult to categorize. He describes himself as a “community animator”, with a focus on “people, plants and place”. Actually, I think that sums it up pretty well!
In any event Ioni, or more accurately Ionatan Waisgluss, led us on a fascinating exploration of plant diseases and their influence on humans, society, and history.
It was truly one of those rare talks that one attends without having any idea what it might be about, and which winds up occupying your mind for days afterwords. Or at least that was my experience.
Welcome to Powell River Ioni – and thank you for the nice note, detailed image notes, and links to further reading, which can be found here!