Chances are that at one time or another (and perhaps frequently for some of us!) we’ve experienced the unpleasant shock of coming across a moldy piece of bread. Maybe it was in the form of a forgotten sandwich, or simply happened when we forgot to empty the breadbox before going on holiday.
However we ended up with it, though, it’s unlikely that we looked at our mottled, greenish-grey baked goods and admired their abstract beauty. Yet this is exactly what Martin Scott-Jupp did when he took these pictures. Admittedly, they show mold in rather a different scale than that in which we would normally see it – for this is a truly microscopic perspective – but there lies the magic.
This photograph could almost be of a strange alien landscape rather than something so mundane as a moldy loaf of bread. Then again, mold itself is a lot more amazing than most of us think. Scott-Jupp says he was fascinated by the “extraordinary structure and microscopic nature of these life forms,” and we’re beginning to see what he means.
At this level of magnification, what normally appear as so many gray smudges turn into the delicate, hair-like strands and ‘pods’ on stalks that make up black bread mold – the scientific name for which is Rhizopus stolonifer.
These tiny stalks of mold look as though they’re growing up out of delicate cobwebs, a far cry from the way we normally perceive the annoying fungus that spoils our food and makes us go “eww!”
The mold has well and truly taken hold of the bread in this photograph. This is only the most visible part of the fungus, however. The rest of the mold is deep inside the bread, in the form of root-like threads that penetrate their host below the surface.
These close-up pictures help us see mold for what it truly is: a very small fungus. What we’ve called the ‘pods’ on top of the slender stalks – which the human eye sees as specks – are actually known as ‘sporangia’. And, as their name suggests, sporangia produce the mold’s spores, which are then released into the air.
Mold spores are absolutely everywhere. No matter where you go on Earth, if you moisten a piece of bread and keep it in an airtight container, it will probably grow fungus. And that fungus is likely to be Rhizopus stolonifer. You’re probably breathing in mold spores right now!
These tiny spores float around in the air (or travel through water, or on bugs) until they land somewhere suitable to grow – preferably in a moist, warm environment, although they’re surprisingly unfussy about their hosts. You may, after all, have noticed that they will grow quite nicely in the refrigerator too.
Not only do they spread everywhere but molds will also grow on a huge variety of foods. Apart from bread, they will take hold in fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, jams, pickles, and non-edible objects like books and shoes. Even saltiness doesn’t deter mold: it will happily thrive on salami or bacon.
Once a mold spore finds a home that it likes, it germinates – like a plant seed – to produce the white, hairy strands called ‘hyphae’ you can see here. It looks a bit like animal fur in this shot, don’t you think? Fuzz-tastic!
These delicate threads are like the fungus’s roots and branches, and from them new stalks and sporangia sprout, beginning the mold’s life cycle all over again. Judging by the fact that mold can pop up pretty much anywhere in the world, its method of reproduction is obviously very successful!
You wouldn’t reckon anyone would be tempted to eat moldy food, but just in case you do feel the urge, think again. Mold can cause allergies in certain people, and some types are toxic to everyone. In fact it’s not a good idea to even sniff a moldy piece of bread.
Never eat baked goods like bread that have mold on them. Remember, what you see is only what’s on the surface; the fungus has probably invaded the food far deeper. Once again, you probably don’t need this warning. The mold in these photographs may look pretty but it certainly doesn’t look appetizing!
Despite these dangers, mold can also be useful. For example, cultured bread mold, taken under the right circumstances, can be used to regulate bad cholesterol. And this is to say nothing of the life-saving properties of that other famous bread mold, Penicillium chrysogenum, the source of the drug penicillin.
Nature is full of beauty – some of it obvious, some not so much. Chances are, when something isn’t immediately appealing, you just need to look at it in a different way. In this case, in extreme close-up. Maybe now, the next time something goes moldy in your fridge, you’ll be inspired to look admire it a little. Before you rightly toss it in the bin, that is.