Sex and the Fungus

January 15, 2016 /

Dr. Paul Thomas Truffle Sex and the Fungus - Napa Truffle Festival

The rapt attendees at Friday's Scientific Truffle Cultivation Seminar Truffle Sex and the Fungus - Napa Truffle Festival

The rapt attendees at Friday’s Scientific Truffle Cultivation Seminar

Birds do it, bees do it — and it turns out truffles do it too. It’s hard to picture those hard, black lumps having a sex life, but it turns out they do.

Dr. Paul Thomas’ illuminating lecture at the Scientific Grower Truffle Cultivation Seminar at the 2016 Truffle Festival touched on the latest research in truffle sex, among other topics. Dr. Thomas, chief scientist of the American Truffle Company, draws on such research, as well as the latest in genomic research, in ATC’s continuing efforts to inoculate and grow trees with the best possible chance of producing plentiful and flavorful truffles.

Some past research concluded that each inoculated tree hosts only male or female fungus, but according to a recent Australian study, Dr. Thomas referenced, trees actually host numerous clusters both male and female on its roots. The two seek each other out and get together to produce the truffle, which is the fruiting body of the fungus. Each “fruit” in turn contains millions of spores, which make up the black parts of the marbled body of a truffle.

Whatever truffle action there is takes place underground, however. The truffle’s chief attraction (to us) isn’t sexual in nature. The fungus is dependent on mammals to dig up its fruit and spread its spores — so scientists believe the truffle’s heavenly scent is designed to attract animals, like the dogs used to hunt it nowadays, not the opposite sex.