Scientists from new documentary ‘The Kingdom’ talk fungi and the fate of humanity

Screen capture
Scientists featured in 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World' (from left): Gerry Wright, Anne Madden, Rob Dunn and Karen Bartlett Screen capture
Editor's Note

spoke with four scientists featured in the documentary, The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World, which made its Canadian premiere on CBC TV’s The Nature of Things.

Our conversations were so diverse that we were unable to include a number of fascinating facts and moments from our interviews.

Full transcripts follow about how the vast kingdom of fungi have been the driver of evolution on land and continue to shape our world: from antibiotics, new diseases and much more.

Rob Dunn, biologist, North Carolina State University

Biologist Rob Dunn
Biologist Rob Dunn Supplied photo
It was inspiring to watch you and your enthusiasm for all things fungi. What did you think of the documentary and how your work is represented?

Rob DunnI was so involved in the documentary that I'm not a very unbiased reporter on how it success. I think [writer/director] Annamaria [Talas]'s 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.

What inspires you to be a self-described "microbial explorer"? A life experience? A discovery in university?

Rob DunnI'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.

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

Rob DunnAh, 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. As the project developed, we began to develop a system for our search, a system in which we use an understanding of the ecology and wasps and yeasts to find new species of potential value to beer making. Now, we are pretty darn good at it and have many new yeasts with new flavors — some fruity, some with note of honey and so on — as well as 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.

The documentary, I think, is a love letter to fungi, and how it is truly the foundation of life. Can you describe your feelings about fungi and how this magical organism inspires you and your work?

Rob DunnFungi 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, microbiologist, Rob Dunn Lab

Anne Madden, microbiologist
Anne Madden, microbiologist Supplied photo
It was inspiring to watch you and your enthusiasm for all things fungi. What did you think of the documentary and how your work is represented?

Anne MaddenI 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. At first glimpse fungi are not as charismatic as polar bears, nor seemingly as powerful as volcanoes and black holes. Yet upon closer inspection, we see that they are so much more than they appear. 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. Translating the research we do as scientists is no small task, and I am honored that this team focused their lens on our work — not just the exciting work we are doing with insects and yeasts as it relates to beer, but also all the other things we are learning that fungi can help us with. Aside from the final documentary as a film, it was also the experience of a life time to watch how the crew put together their work. I never fully appreciated the work that goes on behind the scenes to understand and plan for light, sound, and narrative flow. I am so grateful that I got to see some of the behind-the-scenes adventure, even if it did involve some amusing misadventures with drone cameras, days where the wind could not cooperate with my crazy hair, and more than one moment where I had some serious reconsideration of footwear choices.

What inspires you to be a self-described "microbial explorer"? A life experience? A discovery in university?

Anne MaddenI grew up on the coast of Maine, in the USA. 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, when I returned back to the USA, I began working in a microbiology lab at Wellesley College. There I learned that I didn’t have to go to the rainforest to find new, exotic, mysterious life forms. We are all covered in unknown species! Soon after that I began working at a biotechnology company where I investigated new soil microorganisms that could produce novel antibiotics. Following that work in graduate school, above a dumpster, I discovered a new fungal species a wasp nest — Mucor nidicola, the name means “a fungus that lives in the nest of another.” Discovery after discovery reminded me that all around us there are these life forms that were not only lovely and mysterious, but when provided with the right environment, they can help us build a better world. As such 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.

Of all the things fungi can provide, I think most of us can get behind the exploration for delicious yeasts for beer. How did this turn come about in your explorations? Can you provide some examples of your resulting brews? What do they taste like?

Anne MaddenThe beer project started out as a small education project; the goal was to find a new yeast that could make beer in order to highlight the applications of wild microorganisms. We turned to wasps, as they are nature’s reservoir for wild yeast. The yeast ride them around a bit like we ride airplanes. At the time, I had just completed my Ph.D. dissertation on the microbiome of wasps. 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. We found that these yeasts that live in wasps and bumblebees could 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, and even low alcohol beers with honey notes. We’ve since commercialized this yeast, selling it through our company. It’s been wonderful to go to the store, or a taproom, and buy a beer that started with a yeast living inside wasp. It’s a great example of how we can use our insights into the wild biology of yeasts to discover new technologies. For more than 150 million years this yeast lived inside insects, until we came along a few years ago and gave it the chance to make beer. We’re just beginning to find out what other technologies these yeasts can help us with.

The documentary, I think, is a love letter to fungi, and how it is truly the foundation of life? Can you describe your feelings about fungi and how this magical organism inspires you and your work?

Anne MaddenWhen 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. As I’ve stated on the TED stage, in popular writing, and in classrooms, 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.


Karen Bartlett, microbiologist, University of British Columbia

Karen Bartlett, microbiologist, University of British Columbia in a scene from 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World'
Karen Bartlett, microbiologist, University of British Columbia in a scene from 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World' Supplied photo
Most of the documentary is centered around the life-giving properties of fungi, and for balance, it's both insightful and terrifying to see your work with Cryptococcus gattii. How do you perceive the threat of fungal infections, now and in the near future, for humans?

Karen BartlettHumans are lucky in that we have a core body temperature which is higher than the vast majority of fungi are able to grow at. The fungal “threats” have actually always been around, but we are seeing a rise in more susceptible populations, and hence are more aware of the possibility of fungal infections. For instance, back in the 1980’s when the HIV virus was causing a severe immunosuppression resulting in AIDS, we “suddenly” saw an increase in the number of AIDS patients with potentially fatal fungal infections. The fungal species involved weren’t “new” but having a bigger population of immunosuppressed people meant that there was more chance that laypeople (relatives and friends) as well as health care workers were seeing or hearing the fungal names more often. For the vast majority of people, it is simply a functioning immune system is what protects us from most systemic fungal infections.

The fungi that cause athlete’s foot and ringworm are better known as fungal pathogens because they are common, and are considered nuisance infections. They are never fatal, just irritating. There is very little chance that Microsporium or Trichophyton, the fungal genera that are associated with cutaneous infections will suddenly become killer fungi.

There are often strong environmental ecosystems associated with fungi – for example, the fungus Coccidioides, which causes a pulmonary disease called San Joaquin Valley fever, is being seen more often because there are greater numbers of more susceptible people travelling in areas where the fungus is found — in this case, the central valley of California and parts of Arizona. The fungus has always been in this ecologic zone, but more older folks are travelling to warm climates to spend the winter, are exposed, and may come down with the disease.

What made Cryptococcus gattii interesting is that it was known to be part of the ecology of places like Australia, New Guinea, South America, parts of Europe and Africa, mostly in rural areas. It was unusual, at the time, to find it in Canada, and the ecological area it was associated with happened to be highly populated, so there were enough cases over a relatively short period of time that epidemiologists became aware of it. We do think there was a relationship between changing land use patterns and warmer, drier weather patterns that resulted in more exposure, and the exposure was to a susceptible population. But that’s not to say that C. gattii will suddenly be everywhere like an alien invader. There is still a strong environmental niche that is associated with C. gattii, and it is not spread person to person.

In summary, yes, we will be seeing more fungal disease in humans in future, but we won’t be seeing fungal disease as sudden epidemics like we see with influenza virus.

The documentary, I think, is a love letter to fungi, and how it is truly the foundation of life — and perhaps death as well. Do you think this is true? And can you describe your feelings about fungi and how this magical organism inspires you and your work?

Karen BartlettFungi are fascinating. We have co-evolved with fungi, and fungi will be here long after humans have blown themselves off the face of the Earth. It is good to be friends with such a superior kingdom that can live under a wide variety of environmental conditions much better than humans ever will be able to. Fungi have fostered human evolution by providing the building blocks for making bread, wine and beer. We have exploited fungi for antibiotics, enzymes, and methods of food preservation. But we humans need to understand the ecology of fungi – otherwise we end up living in mouldy buildings — we provide water, and the fungi are just doing what they evolved to do, which is to compost the paper and wood — or eating fungal toxins — toxic mushrooms, mouldy grain, etc. We certainly co-exist, but my money is on the ultimate success of the fungi for the long run.


Gerry Wright, biochemist, McMaster University

Gerry Wright, biochemist, McMaster University, in a scene from 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World'
Gerry Wright, biochemist, McMaster University, in a scene from 'The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World' Supplied photo
There's been a lot of legitimate concern about the end of antibiotics, and in the documentary, your discovery of the benefits of Aspergillomarasmine A (AMA) were brought up. Is this really one of the bright hopes for humanity's long-term resistance to bacteria? And why is this potentially so?

Gerry WrightNature produces lots of antibiotic compounds, but very few make it to the clinic as effective drugs. Issues such as toxicity, stability, and the ease in which resistance can emerge filter out the vast majority of candidate compounds the look initially promising in the lab. The same can be said for molecules made by chemists. It turns out to be very very difficult to make an antibiotic drug. Any strategy then that enables us to keep our ‘old’ drugs is of great benefit. One such approach is what we described in the documentary: the systematic search for compounds that block resistance, and therefore rescue antibiotic drug efficacy. We reason that since environmental microbes (fungi and bacteria) are the source of our best antibiotic drugs, they may also be the source of compounds that block resistance. Our experience, and several others, suggest that this is true. We can’t just rely on this approach though. We must continue to explore many new strategies including ways to diminish the ability of bacteria to cause disease (anti-virulence), probiotics, etc. Also, vaccines are incredibility useful here as well. Preventing the infection in the first place means we don’t need to use so many antibiotics.

The documentary, I think, is a love letter to fungi, and how it is truly the foundation of life. Do you think this is true? And can you describe your feelings about fungi and how this magical organism inspires you and your work?

Gerry WrightFungi are remarkable in so many ways. They are responsible for much of the transformations that we see, and much that we don’t, on the planet. They can be harvested or used for our food. Many species can poison us, while others can infect us and cause deadly diseases. They can wipe out entire crops, and yet are essential to making beer, wine , cheese, bread, etc. But for me, they are exceptional because they are exquisite chemists. The diversity of molecules that they can produce, living on the most basic nutrients, is stunning. These compounds represent a truly amazing breadth of chemistry that we have only just begun to explore. Who knows what new drugs may come from fungi in the next few years?

Content Creator

About Robert J. Ballantyne

Robert Ballantyne is Artsculture's Creative Director. 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 and other media outlets.

Share This