An odd and most rare form of fungus — resembling a sea sponge — has been found living on land in a remote Borneo forest and named after the cartoon character Sponge Bob Square Pants .
Just reading the comically scientific name of this newly discovered species of fungus — Spongiforma squarepantsii — is sufficient to produce smirks and raised eyebrows, but its discovery is a rare find for mycologists; resembling a typical sea sponge, the hole-pocked fungus is only the second known member of the Spongiforma genus.
Absorbent and porous and orange-y….
The name literally translates as “the sponge form of square pants” and true to its name (though not square), the fungus has a remarkable ability to retain water; it can be squeezed like a sponge to extract its store of water. But unlike most other sizable fungi, this form springs back to its original size.
Its discoverer, Dennis Desjardin, described the fungus’s smell as somewhat “fruity” to “strongly musty”. It is not clear at present if the fungus is edible (and hopefully, it is not), but both Spongiforma varieties are related to the delectable Porcini mushrooms
The Sponge Bob fungus was found in the forests of Borneo, Malaysia, where it grows on or close to ground. The only other known fungus of this genus is native to central Thailand and differs in color and smell. Both lack a mushroom’s typical stem and cap structure, although scientists believe that more ancient ancestors of this fungal form did possess such features.
Somewhere along their evolutionary trail, these rare forms “gave up” the stem and cap structure (which evolved to disperse and protect the fungus’s spores) in favor of a more rubbery structure with the ability to retain water (vital for fungal survival) and its macro-scale shape, despite being occasionally trampled by animals, or the occasional mycologist.
Fungi represent the third great Kingdom of biology along with the Plant and Animal Kingdoms. Mycologists — biologist that specialize in the study of fungi — estimate that only 5% of the world’s fungal species have been identified. Most of these are tiny, even microscopic forms, but even larger forms like mushrooms are mostly unidentified. And, as the world’s forests and other tropical habitats dwindle from logging and deforestation, the race is on to discover and identify as many of these fungal species as possible.
Fungi are an amazingly diverse kingdom and have been part of human culture for thousands of years, and human evolution, most likely, for millions of years.
Many forms of fungus can cause diseases and poisonings (e.g., the Amanita varieties of agaric mushroom, and Claviceps purpurea, or ergot, the chemical basis of LSD), and certain soil-dwelling Aspergillus varieties are causing agricultural problems in Europe as they develop resistance to azole fungicides. However, the metabolites from several species are used in modern medicine and some, like the shiitake mushroom, may actually prevent cancer. Of course, the most famous and perhaps most useful of all fungi is the single-celled yeast fungus Saccharomyces cerevisiae, used for making bread form wheat.
The discovery of the “Sponge Bob” fungus (made in 2010), along with electron scanning micrographs of its micro-scale structure (resembling a photos of the seafloor covered with small tube sponges), was recently reported by Desjardin et al in the journal Mycologia
Some source material for this post came from the 0riginal World-Science article ‘Scientists find bizarre mushroom, name it after ‘SpongeBob’
Top Photo: Spongiforma squarepantsii seen in cross-section and whole next to a centimeter ruler. (Credit: Tom Bruns, U.C. Berkeley)
Bottom photo: The medicinal fungi Ganoderma lucidum; Ericsteinert ; CC – By – SA 3.0