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Walking through the woods with Jennifer Talbot (CAS’04) means seeing the forest with fresh eyes. But not the way you might think. Those tall, trembling pines stretching into the azure sky? Meh. The autumn sunlight dappling the canopy? Whatever.
The stick stippled with brown and white rot?
“Oh, YEAH!” shouts Talbot, stooping to grab the crumbly branch from the forest floor. She points to a cluster of gelatinous yellow blobs on the bark—a fungus called witches’ butter. “We used to think this was a slime mold, but it isn’t,” she says, pausing to admire the goo. “It’s actually edible, if you want to go there.”
For Talbot, all the action is underfoot. The assistant professor of biology studies a group of organisms called mycorrhizal fungi, which infect the root tips of over 90 percent of plant families on earth—in a good way. The fungi supply nutrients to the plants and get food in return. “The vast majority of plants you see outside could not live where they do without mycorrhizal fungi in the soil,” says Talbot.