MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – If there is one thing most people know about Twinkies, it’s that they never go bad; however, researchers at West Virginia University have conducted studies on some that prove otherwise.
Brian Lovett and Matt Kasson, both scientists who study fungi, received eight-year-old Twinkies from Colin Purrington, who shared on social media what appeared to be a mummified Twinkie and another that had a quarter-sized mold on it.
“We quickly seized the moment, and we said ‘could you send those to us, we’ll isolate whatever fungus is causing it,'” Kasson said. “We suspected it was a fungus-based on how it looked. And certainly, once it arrived in our lab, we looked at it under the scope, and we confirmed our suspicion that it was fungi sporulating on some of the tissues, and really it was just a matter of isolating and growing out that fungus.”
This fascinated Kasson, who had previously researched fungus on Peeps, the sugar-coated marshmallow candy. Kasson said the whole idea behind both projects is that he’s trying to educate the public about mycology, the study of fungi, through appealing ways.
“I think of interesting and creative ways to communicate science to the broader, general, public,” Kasson said. “And I thought this is such a great opportunity to connect with people on something they’re very familiar with, meeting up with something I’m very familiar with. So mold, meet snack cakes. So I thought that was a really a good way to connect and certainly, it went viral and we got a lot of momentum off that, that’s really my motivation.”
In addition to wanting to garner public interest in his field, Kasson said, there is also the simple fact that he wants to understand the fungi as a scientist. He said Twinkies, like maple syrup and jam, are extreme environments because of their really high sugar content. This means not all fungi can grow on them, and when special ones do, they ought to be studied.
Kasson and colleagues collected a piece of tissue from the symptomatic area of the mummified and quarter-sized mold Twinkies. They put them in a culture medium, which is basically a jello-like substance that contains a lot of sugar and other nutrients that fungi need to grow.
He said they got the fungus to grow out, then extracted its DNA, which is standard practice, and then sequenced it to get a firm identification.
Now that they’re done with this project, the question that comes up, Kasson said, is will there be something next?
“Certainly, there will be the next project that comes along, and certainly we will take advantage of these opportunities to educate people on what fungi are and what they do and how we interact with the environment,” Kasson said. “That’s my job as a mycologist and educator, to communicate how these organisms are benefitting society, but also taking away, helping to break down things that are otherwise going to be left in garbage heaps and piles and things like that.”
Additional photos from Kasson’s research can be found below:
(Left to right: mummified Twinkie cut in half, inside the mummified Twinkie and the fungi cultivated from the Twinkies)