Back in 2012, amateur wildlife photographer and science fan Colin Purrington worried that Twinkies might disappear forever after producer Hostess filed for bankruptcy. Naturally, he decided to stock up on the cakes while he still had the chance. He had heard a popular urban legend that Twinkies can survive forever.
According to the legend, Twinkies remain edible for anything between 50 years and the end of time. Rumors include that the snack isn't cake at all but instead a "chemical reaction," or that they last so long because they contain a chemical used in embalming fluid. Mmm, appetizing. For some reason, people believe that when the reign of humans is over and most of Earth's animals are gone, there will be nothing left but Twinkies and cockroaches (and, of course, tardigrades). The idea even features in films like Zombieland, where, after an apocalypse, they are one of the only snacks still viable.
But because 2020, during the pandemic Purrington became bored and decided to crack out the Twinkies and take a bite.
It was not good. When he bit into it, it immediately made him gag, Purrington wrote in a Twitter thread. This may be something to do with the cake having an actual shelf life of 45 days. I've done the math and that's way shorter than 8 years.
That was actually the least gross part of the story.
Purrington took a closer look at the other Twinkies, and found one "hosting an organism of some sort" that he refused to taste on the grounds that he'd "seen that movie before". The worst Twinkie looked like it had evolved into its final form.
Purrington decided that it may have been disgusting as a snack, but it was at least of scientific interest. Fortunately, so did scientists after he put out an appeal for help identifying whatever the fungus was growing on the Forbidden Twinkies.
Matt Kasson, associate professor of forest pathology & mycology at West Virginia University, offered to investigate, and Colin sent him the Twinkies, leading to a biopsy that looks about as grim as an autopsy. They even used a tool designed for extracting bone marrow.
The team believe that the fungus was in the packaging before the Twinkie was sealed up for its 12 years of solitude, as the plastic wrapper appears to have been sucked inwards, suggesting that it may have used up more oxygen consuming the Forbidden Twinkie than it released.
"You end up with a vacuum," Kasson's colleague Brian Lovett told NPR. "And that vacuum may have halted the fungus's ability to continue to grow. We just have the snapshot of what we were sent, but who knows if this process occurred five years ago and he just only noticed it now."
Examining the sample Twinkies under a microscope found fungal spores, as they'd expected.
From the lightly spotted Twinkie, the team was able to grow the fungus in the lab and identify it.
It was a common airborne species, Cladosporium. On the horrific Twinkie, however, they have been unable to identify the mystery fungus, as nothing has grown from the sample. They speculate that the fungus could have died years ago, given that the Twinkies are 8 years old, and so it remains unidentified. However, they are determined to keep trying to rejuvenate it in the lab, using other mixtures to try and coax it back to life. We've seen this movie too.
"The story is not over, of course," Purrington writes on his website. "The fungus growing on the center Twinkie is apparently in the genus Cladosporium, but hopefully they will be able to determine the exact species. And I’m hoping that if they can’t culture the fungus in the mummified Twinkie that they’ll be able to sequence it to get an ID. I cannot wait.
"And they are also working on the moldy Ho Hos I sent them."
Clear out your cupboards, man.