Let’s be honest: plants and animals hog the spotlight when it comes to biological life. They’re like the Kardashians, posing relentlessly on Instagram and appearing on every TV show. Meanwhile, hardly anyone thinks of the humble fungi, just because it lives mostly underground.
The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World is out to correct that balance. This new one-hour documentary, premiering on Sunday, April 8 on CBC’s The Nature of Things, reveals how the vast kingdom of fungi have been the driver of evolution on land and continue to shape our world.
“At first glimpse, fungi are not as charismatic as polar bears, nor seemingly as powerful as volcanoes and black holes,” explains Anne Madden, a Boston-based microbiologist featured in the documentary. “Yet, upon closer inspection, we see that they are so much more than they appear.”
Indeed, this fascinating yet unassuming form of life is one of our most powerful allies — greening our planet and preventing disease as antibiotics — and potentially, with the rise of global warming, one of our most formidable foes.
“Some fungi will save us, others will threaten us. And we are just beginning to understand which is which,” says biologist Rob Dunn from North Carolina State University.
For more about fungi and its role, we asked Dunn and Madden to drop some more science, discuss their roles in the documentary, and explain how their studies led them to creating new kinds of beer.
It was inspiring to watch you both work in the field — and your obvious love for all things fungi. What did you think of the documentary and how it represented what you do as biologists?
Rob Dunn I was so involved in the documentary that I’m not a very unbiased reporter on its success. I think [director Annamaria Talas’] work is beautiful and that she has a unique ability to see — and show through the doc — scientific stories and their connections. You see that in the movie, her vision of the ways in which work going on in many different labs weaves together to offer the big picture. To me, that element is remarkable, the way in which this documentary shows aspects of the story of fungi that are hidden to even many fungus biologists.
Anne Madden I love this documentary! I think the film crew, the director, and the production team undertook a massive challenge: how to make something relatively invisible, visible… The team not only succeeded in showcasing just how important fungi are to humans — and the world! — but managed to even share some of fungi’s beauty in the process.
What inspires you as biologists, to dig into the dirt, and other underground places as self-described “microbial explorers”?
Anne Madden I grew up on the coast of Maine. For as long as I can remember, I enjoyed playing in the tide pools, catching tiny frogs, and exploring the outdoors. In college, I conducted research on poison dart frogs in the rainforests of Costa Rica. It was an exhilarating adventure. I was surrounded by a diversity of creatures I’d never known about. Everything was new and alive! I never wanted to leave… [but then] I learned that I didn’t have to go to the rainforest to find new, exotic, mysterious life forms. I investigated new soil microorganisms that could produce novel antibiotics… above a dumpster, I discovered a new fungal species in a wasp nest. By studying fungi, I’ve come to explore myself, to explore what I really think is possible in this world — and then make it happen.
Rob Dunn I’ve always found joy in discovery. I think I just kept doing what I did as a kid and eventually someone started paying me for it. Today, I manage a big lab and so many of my joys in discovery come from helping younger scientists stumble down their own paths. The other answer is that we know so little about the world we wake up in every day that I find it hard to imagine not wanting to discover more. I can’t imagine otherwise.