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Friday, May 10, 2002

No molds barred

Staff writer

These fuzzy fellas aren't cute at all. In fact, they often grow to stink. If you're not careful, they'll attack your food faster than the class glutton. What are they? Mold spores.

News photo
News photo
Tasty before the experiment, these strawberries and bread became soft, smelly and rotten, certainly not fit for eating, after four days festering in the mold terrarium.

If you've never seen them close up, you could try leaving your sandwich in your lunchbox for a few days. But here's a better, safer way to get up close to them.

But first, what exactly is mold?

It's a type of fungus, like a mushroom.

Plants are green because they contain chlorophyll, which they use to capture the energy of sunlight. This allows them to grow by making food from air and water. But fungi have no chlorophyll, so they have to get their food from other plants or animals. They do this by secreting chemicals called enzymes onto the surface of dead or living organisms. These enzymes help them to feed.

This is why mold feeds on the bread in your sandwich. Like other fungi, it produces chemicals that break down the bread -- that's called rotting. As the bread rots, the mold grows.

Unlike plants, which grow from seeds, mold grows from spores. These tiny spores float around in the air. When some of them fall onto a piece of damp food, they grow into mold.

There are thousands of different kinds of mold in many different colors. For instance, the mold that grows on lemons looks like a blue-green powder. A common mold that grows on bread looks like white, cottony fuzz, but only at first. Later, it turns black. The black dots are new spores, which can produce more mold.

Eating moldy food, even smelling mold, can make you sick. Besides, it looks gross. But mold is one of nature's recycling agents. In a natural environment, it makes things rot and breaks them down into essential nutrients for the soil, from which new living things can grow.

Some foods get eaten only after they become moldy, like blue cheese, which gets its flavor from the veins of blue-green mold in it. When blue cheese is being made, holes are made in it with skewers. As the cheese ripens, mold grows in the holes.

By now, you know enough about mold to play scientist and grow some for yourself. This way, you can find out more about mold on your own. Here's what you'll need for some mold cultivation:

* Some leftover food, such as bread, fruit, vegetables, cookies or cake. Avoid using meat or fish, unless you want a very smelly laboratory.

* A clear container with a lid that you can throw away at the end of your experiment

* Adhesive tape

* Water

The recipe for mold is really simple.

* Make sure that the food is in small chunks. If you're using larger fruits like oranges, break them into segments first.

* Dip the pieces of food in water, then put them into the container, spaced apart.

* Put a lid on the container and seal the edge with tape.

* Put the container somewhere safe, where no one will eat what's inside or throw it away. Label it as your mold-making experiment to be safe.

For the first two or three days, you probably won't see much. But soon you'll see blue, green or white fuzzy stuff growing on some of the food. Over a period of two weeks, watch how the mold spreads and the food rots. After that, throw the container away. Don't open it or eat it -- it's poisonous!

Once you've watched mold grow like this, you won't forget to eat your lunchbox sandwiches. Because if you do forget, there are some food fiends who will gladly beat you to it.

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