Fungi use electrical ‘language’ to communicate with each other: study
In new research, Dr. Andrew Adamatzkya computer scientist from the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of the West of England, analyzed the electrical activity of ghost mushrooms (Omphalotus nidiformis), Enoki Mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes), split gill mushrooms (Municipality of Schizophyllum)and caterpillar mushrooms (Cordyceps militaris). the resultspublished in the journal Royal Society Open Sciencesuggest that the mushroom kingdom has an electrical “language” that is far more complicated than previously thought.
Almost all communication within and between multicellular animals involves highly specialized cells called neurons.
These transmit messages from one part of an organism to another via a connected network called the nervous system.
The “language” of the nervous system includes distinctive patterns of electrical potential spikes (also called impulses), which help creatures quickly sense and react to what is happening in their environment.
Despite lacking a nervous system, fungi appear to transmit information using electrical impulses through filamentous filaments called hyphae.
The filaments form a thin web called mycelium that connects colonies of fungi in the soil. These networks are remarkably similar to the nervous systems of animals.
By measuring the frequency and intensity of impulses, it may be possible to decipher and understand the languages used to communicate within and between organisms across the kingdoms of life.
Using tiny electrodes, Dr. Adamatzky recorded the rhythmic electrical impulses transmitted through the mycelium of four different species of fungi.
He found that the pulses varied in amplitude, frequency, and duration.
By drawing mathematical comparisons between the patterns of these impulses with those more generally associated with human speech, the researcher suggests that they form the basis of a fungal language comprising up to 50 words organized into sentences.
The complexity of the languages used by the different fungal species seemed to differ, with the split-gill fungus using the most complicated lexicon of those tested.
This raises the possibility that fungi have their own electrical language to share specific information about nearby food and other resources, or potential sources of danger and damage, with each other or even with more distant partners.
Underground communication networks
This is not the first evidence that fungal mycelia transmit information.
Mycorrhizal fungi – almost invisible thread-like fungi that form intimate partnerships with plant roots – have extensive networks in the soil that connect neighboring plants.
Through these associations, plants generally access the nutrients and moisture provided by fungi from the smallest pores in the soil.
This greatly expands the area from which the plants can derive sustenance and increases their tolerance to drought.
In return, the plant transfers sugars and fatty acids to the fungi, meaning both benefit from the relationship.
Experiments using plants connected only by mycorrhizal fungi have shown that when a plant in the network is attacked by insects, the defense responses of neighboring plants also activate.
It seems that warning signals are transmitted through the fungal network.
Other research has shown that plants can transmit more than just information through these fungal threads. In some studies, it appears that plants, including trees, can transfer carbon-based compounds such as sugars to neighbors.
These transfers of carbon from one plant to another via fungal mycelia could be particularly useful in supporting seedlings during their establishment.
This is especially the case when these seedlings are shaded by other plants and therefore limited in their abilities to photosynthesize and fix carbon for themselves.
Exactly how these underground signals are transmitted, however, remains a matter of debate.
It’s possible that fungal connections carry chemical signals from one plant to another in the hyphae themselves, much the same way the electrical signals shown in the new research are transmitted.
But it is also possible that the signals dissolve in a film of water held in place and moved through the lattice by surface tension.
Alternatively, other microorganisms could be involved. Bacteria in and around fungal hyphae may change their community composition or function in response to changing root or fungal chemistry and induce a response in neighboring fungi and plants.
The new research showing the transmission of language-like electrical impulses directly along fungal hyphae provides new clues to how messages are transmitted through fungal mycelium.
Mushroom to debate?
Although interpreting the electrical spike in fungal mycelium is appealing, there are other ways to look at the new findings.
The rhythm of electrical impulses bears some similarity to the way nutrients flow along fungal hyphae and therefore may reflect processes within fungal cells that are not directly related to communication.
Rhythmic pulses of nutrients and electricity can reveal fungal growth patterns as the organism explores its environment for nutrients.
Of course, the possibility remains that electrical signals do not represent any form of communication.
On the contrary, the tips of charged hyphae passing the electrode could have generated the peaks of activity observed in the study.
More research is clearly needed before we can say for sure what the electrical pulses detected in this study mean.
What we can learn from the research is that electrical spikes are, potentially, a new mechanism for transmitting information through fungal mycelia, with important implications for our understanding of the role and importance of fungi. in ecosystems.
These findings could represent the first glimpses of fungal intelligence, or even consciousness.
That’s a very big “could”, but according to the definitions involved, the possibility remains, although it seems to exist at time scales, frequencies and magnitudes hardly perceptible to humans.
André Adamatzky. 2022. Language of fungi derived from their electrical doping activity. R. Soc. open science 9(4):211926; doi:10.1098/rsos.211926