Fungi take centre stage in new doc, ‘The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World’

Biologists Rob Dunn and Anne Madden explain the secret world of fungi and how it dramatically effects our everyday lives from antibiotics to beer

Steve Axford
Some of the unexpectedly beautiful fungi featured in the science documentary, 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World' Steve Axford

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.

Biologists Rob Dunn and Anne Madden in a scene from the documentary, 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made our World'
Biologists Rob Dunn and Anne Madden in a scene from the documentary, 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made our World' Screen capture

“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.

Biologist Rob Dunn out in the field in a scene from the new documentary, 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World'
Biologist Rob Dunn out in the field in a scene from the new documentary, 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World' Screen capture

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.

Microbiologist Anne Madden is featured in the 2018 documentary, 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made our World'
Microbiologist Anne Madden is featured in the 2018 documentary, 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made our World' Supplied photo

Of all the things fungi can provide, I think most of us can get behind the exploration for delicious yeasts for beer, as featured in the documentary. How did this turn come about in your explorations?

Rob Dunn Ah, sometimes something just falls in your lap! Jonathan Frederick, head of the North Carolina Science Festival invited me to work with John Sheppard a North Carolina State University brewer to make a new beer with "novel yeast from somewhere." I involved the lab in the question of where to look for a good new beer brewing yeast and the idea of using a wasp yeast came up. Fortunately, Anne Madden in the lab was an expert on wasps and their microbes and so she started to look. Now we are pretty darn good at it, and have many new yeasts with new flavors. Some fruity, some with a note of honey and a yeast that can make a sour beer on its own. That sour beer making yeast is probably the biggest discovery. Sour beers are hard to make. Our yeast makes it easier and cheaper to make really novel sour beers.

Anne Madden Wasps are nature’s reservoir for wild yeast. The yeast ride them around a bit like we ride airplanes. Somewhat shockingly, in this process of looking for yeasts in wasps, we found a group of yeasts that had never been used for making commercial beers. Yeasts that live in wasps and bumblebees make a beer unlike any known yeast on earth. They can make a tart beer, and beers with valuable aromas and flavors: notes and mouth-feel of light honey, aromas of apples and roses, delightfully tart and crisp flavors. They could also make a unique type of sour beer in just four weeks. This technology has the ability to revolutionize the field of sour beer brewing as it dramatically cuts down on the risks and costs of making sour beer (or barrel aged beers). People love the taste of these beers, but brewers are clamoring for the technology that allows them to produce the beers they want, from sour and hoppy new England style IPAs, to monoculture lambics, even low alcohol beers with honey notes. We’ve since commercialized this yeast, selling it through our company, Lachancea. We’re just beginning to find out what other technologies these yeasts can help us with.

Biologists Rob Dunn and Anne Madden enjoy the fruits of their labour in a scene from the documentary, 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made our World'
Biologists Rob Dunn and Anne Madden enjoy the fruits of their labour in a scene from the documentary, 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made our World' Screen capture

The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World is a love letter to fungi, and how it is truly the foundation of life, and perhaps a major threat in the future.

Rob Dunn Fungi can be delicate, they can be nuanced, and they can also be astonishingly powerful. We overlook them and yet they are everywhere a potent undercurrent. I love the idea that the movie is a love letter to fungi. I hope it is. We owe it to them. Like some ancient God, they sustain us and threaten us at the same time and one needs, every so often, to pay libation to such ferocious, wondrous power.

Anne Madden When I think of all the diverse fungal species in the world, I am overwhelmed with hope for the future. Due to their power to transform their environment, we’ve seen they can do everything from make healthier and tastier foods and beverages, to break down our plastics, and even create life-saving therapeutics. And we don’t have to travel to space to find such technology! It’s quite literally living underneath our feet. I believe we used to look at these microorganisms as the source of our problems, when really, in the future they will be the source of our greatest solutions. We just have to keep looking. For now, we seem limited not by what they can do, but what we believe they can do.

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About Robert J. Ballantyne

Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.

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