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An Ode to Fungi

Mar 1, 2024 | Just for fun!, Wildlife & Biodiversity | 0 comments

by Jade Greene

Fungi is one of the least understood, most underappreciated, and absolutely fascinating kingdoms of life on Earth. There’s a lot more to fungi than mushrooms. Let’s dig a little deeper into this mysterious subject to appreciate these enchanting organisms.


What are fungi?

For generations people did not understand fungi. Scientists lumped fungi in with plants until the 1969 when they became their own kingdom. We now know they are extremely different from plants and actually more closely related to animals. So what are fungi?

Mycelium, image from Wikipedia

Fungi spend most of their lives unseen, usually under the ground or in rotting wood, their mycelium (white root-like structures) are their main bodies, which extract nutrients and absorb them. Unlike plants who make their own food (photosynthesis), fungi need to get nutrients from their environment. They are often decomposers (usually by exuding enzymes to break down organic matter) but are also parasites (gain nutrients by attacking a living host) and mycorrhizal fungi (gain nutrients from symbiotic relationship with plants – more on this below).

From deserts to oceans to forests, fungi live everywhere on Earth and they are absolutely vital to every single ecosystem. Essential in the decomposition process, fungi breakdown carbon and cycle nutrients. Fungi are one of the few organisms that have figured out how to break down wood (lignin) – without them, dead trees would never break down. In fact, there was a time before fungi evolved the ability to break down lignin so this woody material accumulated, this is how all the coal on Earth was formed.


What is a mushroom?

Anatomy of a fungus. The organism lives continually (mycelium) and produces an ephemeral mushroom when conditions are right. Interestingly, the fruiting body itself is made up of the same type of cells as the mycelium! Image from Inspirit Learning Inc.

When two mycelia of the same species meet, they connect and share their genes (sex) and when the conditions are right, a fruiting body or mushroom will form. The purpose of a mushroom is to spread spores (similar


to plant seeds but they do not contain any food for the “baby”) and then rots away. The spores will hopefully land in a favorable location where it can germinate. Fungus can be compared to an apple tree: the apple is like the ephemeral mushroom (existing to spread genetic material and then is gone) and the tree is like the enduring mycelium.


Not all fungi form mushrooms, in fact many like yeasts (yum bread) and molds (yum cheese) do not but still spread spores through their mycelium. Some mushrooms stay completely under the soil (like truffles), some mushrooms last only a day (like shaggy ink caps), others will stick around for months (like saddlebacks). 


How have they shaped life on Earth?

Let’s take a journey back in time to understand the role fungi have played to transform life on Earth. Until about 400 million years ago, all organisms lived in the oceans. Plants did not have roots to stabilize themselves and gather nutrients – but fungi did. Fungi had the structure and ability to gather nutrients but needed carbon, which plants made through photosynthesis. A partnership was formed. Plants and fungi began to grow together, allowing for the plants to grow outside of the oceans and absolutely thrive in the unfiltered light of the sun. This partnership cascaded into creating the oxygen-rich atmosphere and the incredible biodiversity of life seen today! Thank you, fungi! 


How do they help plants and crops to this day?

That was a long time ago, plants must be fine without fungi now, right? They have roots and everything, right? Wrong! Overwhelmingly, plants from trees to annuals still rely on fungi for nutrients. Almost every single plant has multiple different fungus living in partnership within their roots.

Mycorrhizal fungi live in the plants roots and help the plant gain more nutrients, in exchange, the plant gives the fungi sugars. Image from Echocommunity.org

Hidden under all healthy soils from a forest to a raised garden bed is a tangle of life. The silent partner vital to healthy, nutritious plants is called mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi help decompose matter in the soil, passing along nutrients that plants can’t efficiently gather themselves, in exchange for carbon (sugar) from the plant.

Additionally, they connect plants to each other. New science is emerging that plants can pass messages to other plants through their shared fungal network – known as the wood wide web. For example, when a plant is attacked by a pest insect, it releases a compound that attracts a predator wasp of their pest. Fungi can share this compound to other plants that they are connected to so they also produce the compound and are prepared before the pest even arrives. 

Sadly, modern conventional farming practices actually erode this relationship, minimizing the mycorrhizal fungi and all living partners in the soil through heavy applications of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and fungicides. Although the yields of these conventional crops have increased, the costs have been astronomical: 

  • Topsoil loss
  • Food waste from overproduction of food
  • Complete dependence on purchased chemicals (which are made from fossil fuels and spread using fossil fuel powered vehicles – agriculture sector is the top 4 producer of greenhouse gasses)
  • Loss of soil nutrition
  • More plant diseases and pests

Organic and regenerative farming practices result in more diverse and abundant mycorrhizal fungi in soil communities. These friendly fungi do more than feed the plants, they also:

  • Hold soil and prevent erosion
  • Increase volume of water soil can hold – slowing down water and reducing flooding
  • Increasing nutrients in the soil
  • Binding carbon to soil to support a grand food web of bacteria, protists, invertebrates and of course plants.

Additionally, mycorrhizal fungi can actually impact the taste and nutrient content of crops. They help plants compete with weeds and can even boost their immune systems (yes plants have immune systems!) and production of defensive chemicals to ward off insect pests (antioxidants). The healthier the soil community, the healthier the plants, the better they are for humans. There has been a marked decline in vegetable nutrients as conventional farming methods break apart these relationships.


Humans and fungi

Of course we know the portabella, brown button, shitake as edible ingredients but we rely on them for so much more! They are essential for bread, fermentation, and medicine. 

Additionally, researchers are trying to harness fungi for bioremediation. Some fungi grow and eat any organic material. They can break down cigarette butts, grow in radiation rich environments like the reactor at Chernobyl, and even break down plastic (hey, it’s just carbon, right?). 

It’s time to start appreciating fungi! 


Appreciating fungi

  • Go ahead and touch!

    Peak mushroom season is spring and fall. Take a slow hike, look down, and see what you can find! All mushrooms are safe to touch. 

  • Take a mushroom cap home and make a spore print or mushroom stamp art
  • Try new varieties of mushrooms from local growers like Primordia Mushroom Farm, vendor at Doylestown and Wrightstown Farmers Markets!
  • Use compost and mulch with lots of organic matter to encourage fungi to grow in your garden’s soil.



Enjoyed this article? Check out the source material in this inspiring book: Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake 


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