Class act: teaching about fungi, friends and foes

Digital photo of a shaggy ink cap, Coprinus comatus isolated on white background.Course description: “This course examines the impact of fungi on human affairs, including the historical and current uses of fungi by humans as well as the roles of fungi in various ecosystems.”

Initially developed by Charles Mims, who retired as a professor of plant pathology in 2008, mycologist Marin Brewer took over PATH 3010, or “Fungi: Friends and Foes,” when she joined the University of Georgia in 2011, modeling it after a class she took at Cornell University called “Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds” taught by renowned plant pathologist George Hudler.

An associate professor of mycology in the Department of Plant Pathology, Brewer expanded the class from about 100 students to 350 before the COVID-19 crisis. In 2020 she modified the course for a hybrid virtual and in-person format, expanding the capacity of the online course to 500 students. The plant pathology course is also cross-listed in anthropology, plant biology and traditional biology. Students have ranged from agriculture, biology and anthropology majors to pre-med, business and art majors.

“There is a very popular interest in fungi for a lot of reasons: medicinal use, food, how they relate to human diseases. Students really like the class and I try to show them how important fungi are and their impact on civilization so they can have a greater appreciation for fungi. In science, animals get the bulk of the attention and plants are ignored compared to animals. Similarly, fungi are ignored compared to other plants,” Brewer said.

In addition to the basic information on “what makes a fungus a fungus” and how they are classified in the broader scheme of plants, Brewer incorporates fungus-related history into the course. She discusses the Irish Potato Famine (caused by Phytophthora infestans) and ergot (Claviceps purpurea), the cause of rye ergotism — which can cause symptoms including paranoia, hallucinations, twitches and spasms — which historians believe may have contributed to the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts.

A healthy looking clutch of fresh oyster mushrooms growing out of the base of a dead tree. Shot with shallow depth of field in natural light.

Oyster mushrooms, commonly found in Georgia, are grown to eat around the world. But foragers must be vigilant — they have toxic lookalikes in North America, East Asia and Australia.

Becoming a mycologist

Prior to joining UGA, Brewer earned her doctorate in plant pathology and plant-microbe biology from Cornell University in 2011. She worked as a biological research technician for several years after earning her master’s degree in plant, soil and environmental sciences from the University of Maine. A Cleveland, Ohio, native, she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Cincinnati.

Shaggy manes or shaggy ink cap

Assistant Professor Brewer explains the common names for Coprinus comatus and how to identify these varieties in the wild.

Initially interested in bacterial research, she became interested in fungi while working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service on the effect of plant root exudates on microbial communities in soil. At Cornell, her doctoral research focused on the evolution of the powdery mildew fungus of grape and how it spread around the world.

Today’s lecture: edible wild mushrooms

Focusing on food-related fungi, Brewer discussed the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a model organism in biochemistry, cell biology and genetics. Yeast, which are single-celled microorganisms classified in the Fungi kingdom, have been used in winemaking, baking and brewing since ancient times.

The main focus of the class was on wild, edible mushrooms and their importance as a food source in many counties in Asia, Africa and South America. Beyond the typical mushrooms found in supermarkets or served in restaurants and specialty wild mushrooms like morels, fungi are not as common in American and western European cuisines, in part because of widespread cultural fear over the danger of poisonous varieties.

Fear aside, foraging is becoming more popular in the U.S. as people share more information on eating wild mushrooms — known as mycophagy —  via the internet through websites, videos, apps and social media channels. Brewer mentioned areas in the Western U.S. where competition for prime foraging land has become hotly contested, leading the U.S. Forest Service to require “mushroom permits” for gatherers. In Georgia, edible varieties include shaggy manes, golden chanterelles, black trumpets, milk cap mushrooms and oyster mushrooms.

This screen shot shows the professor and a slide of text that reads

In 2020, UGA Associate Professor Marin Brewer expanded the capacity of her online course to 500 and focused on making mycology accessible to students — in myriad ways.

Brewer repeatedly stressed the importance of being absolutely sure before eating any wild mushroom, as there are edible varieties — like meadow mushrooms — that look very similar to highly poisonous mushrooms like the aptly named destroying angel.

The final group of edible mushrooms discussed was truffles — highly prized mushrooms that grow underground and are popular in Europe, particularly Italy and France — that can sell for upwards of $300 per pound. Several years ago, Brewer even had a student who gave an honors presentation on the role of truffles in organized crime. In Georgia, pecan truffles have become popular.

“I really love being able to expose people to how amazing and awesome and important fungi are. This class gives them a peek into fungi and opens that world to them. Some of them realize they want to learn more. Most of those students then take my mycology course. It really does open up to all of these classes at UGA for them to learn more about fungi and even become involved in undergraduate research.” — Marin Brewer

Students say

“I never realized how prevalent fungi and other things like that are in our lives. Fungi come up so much in our day-to-day lives — from the mushrooms on your pizza or salad, to the bread we eat that is made from yeast, to drinks like kombucha and medicines like penicillin. It is really neat that there are so many different kinds. Once you start learning about fungi, you can’t stop seeing them everywhere.” — Natalie Miller, sophomore biological science major, now minoring in plant pathology due to her interest in fungi

Douglas Vines enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the fungi course, which covered art, culture, food, medicine and agriculture.

“I took Dr. Brewer’s mycology class in the fall, which is out of order because most people take “Fungi: Friends and Foes” first, then mycology. The mycology class was more of the nitty-gritty science across broad topics, while “Fungi: Friends and Foes” is more of a collection of really cool stories and facts about fungi. There’s so much about how people interact with fungi, from art to culture to food to medicine to agriculture. It’s learning about STEM in a very interdisciplinary way. There is more of a cultural perspective.” — Douglas Vines, sophomore applied biotechnology major and plant sciences minor

“I have always been interested in the mutualistic relationships fungi have with other organisms. I am planning on doing graduate work in plant pathology with an emphasis in mycology, and I learned a lot about other people’s research, but I really love how Dr. Brewer constructed the class so that it is just as interesting to those who aren’t planning to work in mycology.” — Marin Lonee, junior environmental resource science major and environmental law minor