Apart from some strained attempts at humour, starting with the subtitle, Nicholas Money has produced an excellent book. The book is a well-organised and expressively written presentation of how various fungi [and their relations] have and are assaulting valuable trees and crops around the planet. With excellent graphics to support the text, the author describes how fungal infections have attacked decorative or lumber tree species, such as the chestnut and jarrah, crop plants like coffee, potatoes and rubber. He explains how the infections were detected and investigated by various researchers and what steps have been taken to curb or eliminate the infestation. The latter point is the one that should prompt the reader's close attention.
Although to many people, the blight causing the Irish Potato Famine may be the best known of fungal infections, Money opens with a story of the extermination of the American Chestnut. The account shows how little was known of fungi life cycles at the turn of the last century. Coping with the spreading infection was sporadic and ineffective. The spores, Money calculates, spread at the rate of over 100 metres per day. Small wonder governments failed to address the epidemic successfully. Control, in any case, would have meant an interdict on seed and seedling importation and transport, a multi-million dollar business. Such a draconian imposition would have raised the ire of business and governments alike. So we lost the chestnut. And the elm. The oaks and redwoods in California are presently under threat from a similar infestation. How can microbes be so destructive and apparently so immune to counter-measures?
Fungi are insidious in their invasive tactics and are talented breeders. Not only may a species have multiple mechanisms for breeding, many actually breed across species to create hybrids. These cross-bred organisms are highly adaptable to changing conditions. In fact, variations in environment may prompt species' mix to address the change. The breeding of multiple species may have immense impact, since some fungi may infect more than a hundred different types of plants. Money demonstrates mixed feelings as he describes some fungi as "the most exuberant swingers of the microbial world". It's an amazing capacity in such a simple organism. The genome of some species is nearly the size of a human's - but, far more importantly, the large genome imparts the ability to change rapidly as needed. This is one reason why so many fungi aren't "species-specific" in their infections.
In his descriptions of the historical efforts to identify the various rusts, blights, blasts and bunts attacking plants, Money recounts the efforts of investigators. There are the losers who went along almost fantastic idea tracks, attributing infections to malodorous mists and even moonlight. More rational researchers found ways of tracking infectors and how they operated. His first hero is Henry Murrill, who struggled to cope with the American chestnut epidemic that originated in the Bronx Zoo grounds in 1904. Rev. Miles Berkeley, working in limited circumstances, produced a landmark essay on the cause and effect of fungal infection of the "Irish" potato. Money's chapter heading, "Potato Soup" is telling as a descriptor.
Farther afield, Money admires the work achieved by a group of women in the Netherlands. Johanna Westerdijk, Christine Buisman and Marie Schwarz all made key contributions in revealing the mechanics of what is known as Dutch elm disease. Some of this work provided pointers to the evolutionary path of these fungi, information being applied elsewhere. Money's real praise, however, reaches further back in time in lauding two French scientific pioneers. Mathieu Tillet and Benedict Prevost proved to be the first to apply sound research methods in determining how plant disease operates. He would have this pair granted Nobel Prizes if the rules allowed posthumous awards. He notes that in France experimental research was held in low regard in their day. It was a serious uphill climb for them to gain recognition for their work.
It's not an uphill struggle to read this book, however. Money, who has published other works on mycology - the study of fungus - has an admirable way of making his point. The point here is that with fungi so adaptive, so easily disseminated over vast distances and so difficult to eradicate, the human species stands in some peril of indirectly succumbing to its effects. Wheat, maize, cocoa, coffee and rubber may join chestnuts in disappearing from our ken. These products are fundamental to our society, and more research must be undertaken to reveal how to address the problem. With so many of these crops being clones of earlier strains, their vulnerability is high, as is ours as a result. Read this and find out what you may be confronting. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]