Notes from Underground by David Rose

Bioluminescence and Fungi

This column originally appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            The burning of the sea. Can there be a more fiery oxymoron? Can there be a more contradictory mingling of elements? Imagine it. The burning of the sea - the phenomenon of bioluminescent micro-organisms in teeming billions that cause the ocean, seen at night, to sparkle with a liquid fire of eerie brilliance. Many have described it, from Lord Byron to Charles Darwin. Here is how an officer of the sailing ship 'Challenger' described this spectacle southeast of the Cape Verde Islands in 1877:

"On the night of the 14th the sea was most gloriously phosphorescent to a degree unrivalled in our experience. A fresh wind was blowing and every wave and wavelet as far as one could see on all sides to the distant horizon flashed brightly as they broke. The horizon hung a faint but visible white light. Astern of the ship, deep down where the keel cut the water, glowed a broad band of blue, emerald green light, from which came streaming up, or floated to the surface, myriads of yellow sparks, which glittered and sparkled against the brilliant cloud light below, until both mingled and died out astern far away in our wake. Ahead of the ship there was enough light to read the smallest print with ease. It was as if the Milky Way as seen through a telescope, scattered in millions like glittering dust, had dropped down into the ocean, and we were sailing through it."

            Quite simply, bioluminescence is "living light." It is a natural light emitted from certain living creatures - protozoa, insects, crustaceans, fish, and fungi, among others - from a chemical process in which oxygen combines with a substance (known as luciferin) in the presence of an enzyme (luciferase). The ocean's luminescence described above was probably caused by one-celled organisms known as dinoflagellates. One species, Noctiluca miliaris, produces such light as to turn the ocean's surface pink even in daylight. Most of us are more familiar with the luminescence of 'fireflies' - Andrew Marvell called them 'country comets' - which begin to appear hovering above lawns in mid-June. And, of course, certain species of mushrooms, like Omphalotus olearius, nicknamed 'Jack-o-Lantern,' exhibit a distinctive luminescence that beckons to students of mycology.

            Recorded observations of fungal luminescence date back to Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. Pliny identified an 'Agaricke' that 'grows on the tops of trees and shines at night' though he may have confused the Omphalotus with a bracket polypore. Renaissance philosophers wrote of 'Fungus igneus, which shines like stars with a bluish light.' In folklore, 'fairy sparks' in decaying wood indicated the places where fairies held their nightly revels. This, as well as 'foxfire' and 'touchwood,' were folk names for bioluminescent rhizomorphs, tough strands of mycelia, visible as shining runners in wood. The word 'foxfire,' by the way, has nothing to do with foxes, but is derived from the French 'faux fire,' meaning 'false fire.' Armillariella mellea, the honey mushroom, with its world-wide range and mycelial 'shoe-strings,' is most frequently responsible for streaks of foxfire in decaying wood. Other mushrooms, like Mycena rorida, produce only luminous spores while Collybia tuberosa produces only luminescent sclerotia (underground knots of hyphae) whose adaptive value is uncertain and perplexing.

            Bioluminescence has great popular appeal. American business has even tapped the biochemical potential of self-illuminating creatures for commercial use. The New York Times (22 March 1999) reported that a Pittsburgh company, Prolume Ltd, won a patent for an extract made from bioluminescent creatures, such as jellyfish. Not yet Fortune 500 material, Prolume intends to produce glowing textiles, inks, paints, paper, toys, and - food! That's right - eggs with glowing yolks, luminescent yogurt, a cake frosting that glows bright blue, even fish food to boost the luminescence of transgenic fish. Certainly this is just what the world has been waiting for, so why bother tracking down clusters of Omphalotus with a commercial substitute coming soon to your local supermarket? I foresee Agaricus bisporus genetically reconfigured to impart fiery accents to salads and omelet?s, for it's only a matter of time until Prolume opens a branch operation in Kennett Square.

            We may easily dismiss Prolume's crass attempt at bioluminescent mimicry. There was a time, however, when bioluminescent fungi had greater currency than today. The time was World War II, and stories abound of Gl's in tropical jungles of Pacific islands using these mushrooms for a variety of unexpected purposes. Troops on patrol stuck them on their weapons and helmets to avoid colliding with each other in the deeps of nighttime jungles. The British mycologist John Ramsbottom reported that an American war correspondent on assignment in New Guinea began a letter to his wife, "Darling, I am writing to you tonight by the light of five mushrooms." And in a jungle of Sumatra could be found a garden of unearthly light:

"The stem of every tree blinked with a pale greenish-white light which undulated also across the surface of the ground like moonlight coming and going behind the clouds, from a minute thread-like fungus invisible in the daytime to the unassisted eye. Thick dumpy mushrooms displayed a sharp clear dome of light, whose intensity never varied till the break of day. Long phosphorescent caterpillars and centipedes crawled out of every corner, leaving a trail of light behind them."

            What have naturalists and artists discovered in the poetry of tropical luminescence? The work of Paul Gauguin perhaps offers the finest attempt to find human and supernatural meanings in the spiritual suggestiveness of tiny, glowing mushrooms. Gauguin traveled to Tahiti in 1891 in an attempt to escape from the civilization he hated utterly, yet found upon his arrival that Tahitian culture had been changed forever by that very civilization. He sought solace in the emotional directness of the natives. He married a Tahitian woman and gathered the beauty of the place into his painting. Traveling the island, he spent a night alone that led to a powerful encounter with the supernatural. Gauguin wrote about it in Noa Noa, A Journal of the South Seas.

"The night was profound. It was impossible to distinguish anything, save a powdery phosphorescence (from a particular species of small fungus) close to my head which strangely perplexed me. I thought of the Maori stories about the Tupapaus, evil spirits which awaken with the darkness to trouble sleeping men. Their realm is in the heart of the mountain, which the forest surrounds with eternal shadows. . ."

            Soon after, returning to his wife Tehura one night, he discovered her lying terrified in the dark:

"Tehura, immobile, naked, lying face downward flat on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear. She seemed not to recognize me. As for myself, I stood for some moments strangely uncertain. A contagion emanated from the terror of Tehura. I had the illusion that a phosphorescent light was streaming from her staring eyes. Never had I seen her so beautiful, so tremulously beautiful . . ."

            What Gauguin had witnessed in the emergent luminosity of Tehura's eyes was an image of fungal luminescence released with supernatural intensity. For Tehura, the spirits of the night were the life of light created from the nothingness of darkness. From this experience Gauguin painted one of his finest Tahitian works, Manao Tupapau. On the bed lies Tehura; in the background are strewn Tupapau flowers, the phosphorescent lights, the spectres who think of her always.

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