At some point in your life, you’ve likely rummaged around the kitchen for a tasty snack, opened it up, and discovered that your treat has been cheerfully consumed by a colorful fuzz. Although your reaction was probably simple—“Ick, mold!”—not all molds are made alike. There are actually a couple thousand of genera of mold within the kingdom Fungi, and many more species, each with its own special traits and talents. Specialists, generalists, molds that like it damp, or dry, or fruity—they’re living and breeding among us.
The fuzz you see is actually just the fruiting body of any given mold—namely, its spores. These hang out trying to catch a breeze on to something organic to grow on. Under the hairy bit is the body of the mold, the mycelium. If you were to cut open a moldy bagel instead of chucking it, you’d find that the mycelium’s feathery strands, called hyphae, had already feasted on the inside, excreting digestive enzymes to turn it into a smelly web.
Just what do these molds want with us and our edibles? “To reproduce and take over the world,” says Kathie Hodge, an associate professor of mycology at Cornell University. Hodge's research focuses on the classification of fungi—including molds. She also edits the Cornell Mushroom Blog.
Hodge says the ecological function of molds is to act as recyclers. But that definition “gives them short shrift," she adds. "Molds live their own vibrant and interesting lives.” Sometimes their drama plays out in your kitchen.
Here’s a tour of some of what Hodge calls the “small and elegant” entities waiting to turn your fridge into a fascinating fungus zoo:
1. RHIZOPUS STOLONIFER, A.K.A. BLACK BREAD MOLD
It’s likely that this white-then-black species is the one that took over your bagel. How? Hodge says spores may have landed on it back at the bakery, or maybe they first infiltrated some breadcrumbs that fell unnoticed behind your toaster. Rhizopus stolonifer is a bread specialist, getting to it early, eating it like crazy, and growing incredibly fast. Molds love sugar, “and as anyone on a low-carb diet knows, bread is starch, which is basically sugar and easy to break down,” says Hodge. Is it safe to eat a Rhizopus-infected bagel? “It would taste disgusting, so don’t go there."
2. PENICILLIUM CHRYSOGENUM
It’s also possible that this puffy bluish mold is your bread-eating culprit. Yes, Penicillium is the same genus that brings you lifesaving penicillin. But don’t try to use your blue bagel as a home remedy. “I can’t tell you how many times people have said, ‘I have a cut on my arm, should I put moldy bread on it?’” sighs Hodge. Mold only morphs into antibiotics after it’s been extracted from its growth medium and purified in a lab and furthermore, the Pencillium group as a whole—there are over 300 species—is famous for making many and diverse toxins. Still, one species also makes blue cheese (Penicillium roqueforti), and another cures salami (Penicillium nalgiovense).
3. WALLEMIA SEBI
This is one of the true oddballs of the mold world—an extremophile that likes to live, as this name suggests, in extreme outposts. Extreme for a mold is a place that’s salty or super-sugary, and therefore, dehydrating. Enter Wallemia sebi, thick brownish blobs of which Hodge once found floating in her maple syrup. “It’s really slow and patient,” she says, hiding out and waiting for its time to pounce. “So, if you eat your maple syrup at a normal rate, you’re never going to see it.” Wallemia sebi is the source of some amount of controversy among Hodge’s colleagues. Some of them insist that it’s harmless. But remember, Hodge points out, “it’s been eating and excreting into your syrup. I highly recommend that people throw it out.”
4. ZYGOPHIALA JAMAICENSIS, A.K.A. FLYSPECK
This mold is commonly found growing on apples (and grapes), and is also known as flyspeck. Confusingly, flyspeck can be caused by a variety of mold species, varying by region and type of apple. Flyspecked apples are usually snubbed by consumers, despite the fact that their little black bumps are harmless and grow only on the skin. “It’s a hard life, being a plant,” says Hodge. “Every one I can think of has multiple fungal problems.” If you find flyspeck on your fruit at home, console yourself in the knowledge that it came in from the orchard and likely isn’t lurking in your cupboards.
5. FUSARIUM VERTICILLIODES, A.K.A. MAIZE EAR ROT
Ever peeled open an ear of corn and found a patch of pink sliming the kernels? That’s Fusarium verticilliodes, part of a huge genus that produces some truly terrible mycotoxins. It loooooves both the sweet corn you buy at the market and the field corn that’s manufactured into corn chips and fake-meat patties. And it can survive processing to cause things like estrogenic effects and immune suppression. Hence, Fusarium is highly regulated to try to keep it out of our food supply. And oh yeah, some species have also been used to make biological warfare agents.
6. BOTRYTIS CINEREA, A.K.A. NOBLE ROT FUNGUS
Fluffy grey Botrytis cinerea will gladly sink its spores into the strawberries in your fruit bowl. It’s not particularly toxic, says Hodge, but it can gobble up fruit with lightening speed. It comes in with your berries from the field, where damp conditions make it hard to eradicate. The upside: This mold species is also known as “noble rot.” When it turns up (uninvited) on grapes in vineyards, it dries them out and concentrates their flavor; the grapes can then be used to make sweet wines like Sauternes (from France) and Tokaji Aszú (from Hungary and Slovakia).
7. ASPERGILLUS NIGER, A.K.A. BLACK MOLD
“This one is interesting,” says Hodge. “It can grow on onions—it shows up as black flecks between the layers. And it can also cause ear infections in humans.” But its talents don’t end there; Aspergillus niger also causes you to exclaim, “Ooh, lemons,” when you drink certain manufactured “lemony” beverages. (“No,” corrects Hodge. “It’s mold.”) Niger’s sister, Aspergillus oryzae, is used to make miso and soy sauce. And another, the parrot-green Aspergillus flavus, which favors peanuts and tree nuts, “is the worst fungus I can think of,” says Hodge. Its crimes against humanity include causing liver cancer.
8. DIPLODIA NATALENSIS
Most of us have reached into the vegetable drawer and pulled out a green lemon (thanks for nothing, Penicillium digitatum). But Diplodia natalenis is responsible for an unattractive darkening—and sometimes, mush-ening—of a lemon’s stem end. This mold is also devious; it lives inside the dead wood of trees back at the grove and doesn’t actually show itself until the fruit’s already been picked, packed, and stored in your refrigerator.
9. MUCOR CIRCINELLOIDES
This little guy (gal? Other? Molds can produce spores asexually and often sexually, too) is something of a generalist. It likes fruit, vegetables, and dairy. To wit: a virulent subspecies of Mucor circinelloides was implicated in a nausea- and vomit-inducing episode that affected more than 200 people who’d eaten some moldy yogurt back in 2013. How virulent? Tests showed that it could survive passage through the digestive tract of lab mice. But how it got into the yogurt in the first place remains a mystery.