Putting the Fun in Fungus

By Patrick Monahan / Photo by Taylor Lockwood

Green bioluminescent mushrooms

A puckish professor of biology is bringing mushrooms out of the shadows with vividly colorful names for his discoveries

Naming a first child is easy for some. Maybe it’s the same for the second and third. But at a certain point, coming up with original names is going to take a little creative thinking.

Now imagine naming 300.

That’s something like the experience of SF State Professor of Biology Dennis Desjardin, who in his career has helped describe 293 species of fungi. Along with the effort of finding them and the painstaking documentation it takes to prove that each species is new to science, that meant coming up with names for every single one. It was only a matter of time before he started having fun with it — and in that act of naming, he’s found an invaluable platform to educate.

“It’s given me the opportunity on the world stage to talk more about the role of fungi in ecosystems, the importance of conservation and the importance of biodiversity,” he says. “That wouldn’t happen unless there was some way to put my foot in the door.”

He started small, naming fungi after their physical traits or the plants they grew on (like Micromphale sequoiae, the latter word an homage to California redwoods). Each was styled in Latin and Greek to follow the byzantine rules laid out by the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi and Plants — or in the world of fungal taxonomists, simply “The Code.”

But after a series of trips to Hawaii in the early 1990s to track down the little-documented fungi of the islands, Desjardin decided to work with local elders to come up with evocative Hawaiian-language names to reflect the species’ home. A bright yellow shroom became Hygrocybe lamalama — lamalama meaning “to glow as if touched by the sun” — and another was dubbed Hygrocybe pakelo, referring to a slippery fish. “This mushroom has just got snot all over it,” Desjardin explains. “You try to pick it up, and it just slips out of your hands.”

Later, Desjardin even managed to parlay his expertise into some brownie points when his wife spotted a jewel-red mushroom on a walk in Hawaii. He gave it the name Pseudobaeospora wipapatiae after her Thai name, Wipapat, and wrote that “the beauty of this new species is surpassed only by that of its discoverer” in the scientific paper announcing its discovery. “It’s in the annals of science forever,” he says. “Can’t take that away.”

Perhaps his biggest moment in the spotlight came from an orange, porous mushroom in Borneo. In a spark of inspiration, he and University of California, Berkeley Professor Tom Bruns named it Spongiforma squarepantsii after the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. The crowning touch of the comparison? The mushroom’s fruity scent.

“SpongeBob is kind of yellow and orange, and so is the fungus. And he lives in a pineapple under the sea so he’s got to smell fruity,” Desjardin says. “It all fits!”

That one got noticed around the world: Desjardin was mentioned on the BBC, in National Geographic and elsewhere, and his find landed a spot on the International Institute for Species Exploration’s Top 10 New Species of 2012. Publicity from that discovery gave Desjardin a bully pulpit from which to champion environmental and educational causes. He also found himself in correspondence with grade school classrooms across the country after glowing fungi he discovered — with names evoking Latin translations of phrases like “eternal light” and “faerie eyes” — were featured in second-grade classroom lessons.

“It gives me the chance to spread knowledge beyond just college-level, academic stuff about fungi,” Desjardin says.

His advice for students who want to follow in his fungi-hunting footsteps? “Stay curious, walk in the woods and read a lot.”