The miracle that is mildew

I have an odd habit. When I shower, I often find myself casting a fond eye on the blackened mass sporulating away in our grouting. I realise this is not a widely shared sentiment, of course.

That mould is a great testament to the sheer will and determinism of life. It has evolved the ability to survive in an uninviting environment. It suffers long periods of drought punctuated by brief periods of drowning. It faces multifaceted chemical attack by substances that no organism has faced for billions of years up until the last few decades. The noxious, caustic chemicals that we use in bathing but would kill us if drank, are the only sources of food available to the hardy opportunist mould. And on this, it apparently thrives.

All around us, life faces the hostile hands of humans. The family that lives below our rented flat has sole ownership of the tenement’s front garden, and they have chosen to celebrate this privilege by replacing their lawn with Astroturf, which saddens me. To destroy so much life in pursuit of a clean clutter-free pallet seems a shame. Especially as every few months they have to hack away at the thick layer of moss that forms on it.

As one might gather, I don’t spend much money or time battling with nature. I am not a farmer, and I have not seen my entire livelihood gobbled up by some rambunctious pest. My recently completed dissertation was on the topic of agricultural parasite control however, and I understand how hard it is to kill pests, some of which are only observable once they begin to cause damage.

Pests, vermin, weeds – whatever we chose to call them – are simply biological competitors of human kind. They are parasites: they benefit from our presence, yet we gain little from them. Parasitic organisms are perfectly primed for evolutionary forces to act; they exist in vast numbers and reproduce rapidly. Pesticide resistance has been documented in many pests, as has its medical equivalent, antibiotic resistance, evolved in many human pathogens. The more powerful an assault we launch against them, the stronger the selection pressure to overcome it.

They live on our land, and they eat our food, but do we have sole ownership over these resources? As humankind spreads over the world – much as our eponymous mildew spreads over my shower – we take more and more land away from nature, annexing it for ourselves. Some of nature’s more generalist foot soldiers are able to fight back, and survive in an increasingly human world.

Glimpsing a fox or a rodent eking a living in the city is, to me, a cause for excitement not revulsion. I was recently heartened to see ferns thriving inside a train station. These environments are hostile, seemingly inhospitable to unwelcome outsiders. But, as Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric philosopher so eloquently warned that Jurassic Park technician, “Life, uh, finds a way.” A few years ago, I read a wonderful book titled The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. In it, he compellingly illustrated how quickly nature takes root in our fields and our cities and our homes when we are no longer there to prevent it doing so.

When trying to illustrate the adaptability and versatility of life, standard scientific textbooks draw their readers’ eyes towards organisms that live in scorching deserts or deep on the abyssal plain. These examples work well, but why look further than one’s own home? Human houses contain a great splendour of wildlife: ants, cockroaches, woodlice, mice, fleas, bedbugs, bookworms, clothes moths and carpet beetles to name but a few. These are not genial environments, and none of these visitors are offered a warm welcome when noticed.

The shower mould is harmless. It represents no health risk to immunocompetent adults, and only causes a tiny amount of indirect damage by retaining water against the tiles. But it isn’t pretty. Humans have evolved to avoid mouldy foods so as to avoid poisoning; this behaviour so strong it has spilt over onto things we would never dream of eating. Mildew isn’t pretty, and a sterile bathroom, well, it just looks clean and clear and sanitary. Even if we have to eradicate entire populations to make it so. To me, it still seems a shame that we choose to destroy so much life for aesthetic purposes. If we eat organic food, and spare the use of murderous pesticides, why do we bleach our homes?

People of the world, celebrate your weeds! Cherish those unsightly blackenings! Hold dear to your heart that fusty library smell! After all, when we’re long gone, it is the pests that shall inherit our world.



Filed under Biology

2 responses to “The miracle that is mildew

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