Costa brings the branch close to his eye. "Yes," he says, with a boyish grin, "this is a fungus success story."
For some, a fungus success story means nothing is growing at the back of their refrigerator. But for Costa, research assistant professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont, and Grassano, his graduate student, the vigorous growth in their laboratory of this fungus, a strain called Lecanicillium mucarium, means a hopeful new chapter in the otherwise bleak tale of the eastern hemlock tree.
From Georgia to Maine, this once-mighty conifer is now succumbing to an exotic pest, hemlock woolly adelgid. First detected in the western US in 1924, the adelgid reached Virginia in the 1950s. An aphid-like insect, the adelgid kills eastern hemlocks within a few years after infestation, feeding on the sap at base of their needles and cutting off their nutrients.
While the adelgid, originally from Japan and China, appears to have no successful predators in North America, some native fungi—like the one Costa and Grassano have growing on branches in their laboratory—kill the pest.
Last December, Costa, Grassano, and two the other researchers, Vladimir Gouli and Jiancai Li, submitted a provisional patent for a new method of cheaply and effectively spreading the fungus, and other similar "biological controls," that might beat back the adelgid without having to use expensive, toxic pesticides. They call their approach a "whey-based fungal micro-factory."
Instead of growing fungi in a conventional factory and then transporting it out to a forest—a costly proposition—their factory will be the forest. Or, more accurately, tiny drople