S.F. State Mushroom King Names Glowing Fungi After Mozart Requiem. He Also Named Species Resembling Tiny Penis After His Good Pal.
Professor Dennis Desjardin is a well-named man. The San Francisco State mushroom specialist's handle, translated from French, literally means "of the garden." Earn a Ph.D in botany and people do point this out.
Cassius V. Stevani / Chemistry Institute, University of Sao Paulo The luminous Mycena luxaeterna (eternal light) owes its name to lyrics from Mozart's requiem
"I thought of changing it to 'De La Merde' -- 'of the shit,'" says the professor. "You know, people always comment how mushrooms are growing out of crap."
Desjardin, thankfully, has not seen fit to rechristen himself. But he has thought up names for the more than 200 mushroom species he's discovered. And the source of the name for a pair of the latest 'shroom species he unearthed is about as far from the earthiness of scatological humor as you can get.
The SFSU prof and four colleagues this week published a paper on seven luminous mushroom species in the journal Mycologia. Desjardin personally named a pair of those species -- Mycena luxaeterna (eternal light) and
Mycena luxperpetua (perpetual light) -- after inspiring Latin lyrics in Mozart's famous requiem.
"We have to describe all our species in Latin, so I understand Latin. And I'm reading along and singing along [with the requiem] in Latin -- and halfway through you run into 'perpetual light of God' and 'eternal light' ... and I thought these are great names for mushrooms!" he says.
While Desjardin is probably the first mycologist you've seen quoted, yes, he assures us, 200-plus species is a lot for someone in his field to discover. The secret of his success is simple: First, be super-knowledgeable about mushrooms. Then, go to places no other mycologist has ever been.
"I have current projects in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Micronesia, Hawaii, Brazil, and Sao Tome and Principe, an island country off the west of Africa," he says. In one month, he and his colleagues found 225 new species there.
Desjardin has a pair of theories as to why his glowing mushrooms light up the night. Hypothesis A is that nocturnal insects are drawn to the light, and then carry off the mushroom's spores.
Hypothesis B is sexier, but less based in solid evidence. With many luminous mushrooms, the only part that glows is the mycelium. Mushrooms, after all, are just the sexual organs of the mycelium -- "so when you're picking a mushroom, think of Lorena Bobbit," says the professor. The networks of mycelium can stretch for hundreds and even thousands of square acres -- and no one knows how long they can live (ages of 5,000 to 7,000 years or more have been extrapolated). These massive, subterranean fungi have been genetically tested -- and qualify as one, single genetic individual.
In any event, mycelium don't emit spores, so the prior hypothesis doesn't work. But Desjardin thinks the glowing fungi may attract insects that devour bugs that prey on the mushrooms -- "they attract the enemy of their enemy."
Speaking of enemies, Desjardin was last in the news in June when he named a mushroom after a friend, Robert Drewes of the California Academy of Sciences. Desjardin discovered a mushroom on Sao Tome and Principe of the genus "Phallus" -- so "you can imagine what they look like." This, however, was the tiniest phallus ever seen at barely two inches long.
Naturally, Desjardin thought of his buddy, Drewes. Now a mushroom that "looks like a tiny, circumcised penis" has been immortalized as Phallus Drewesii.
What a pal!