Nature section: Mushrooms connect life | Columns
When most people think of mushrooms, they probably imagine mushrooms growing in their garden or on the dinner table. Fungi are the most prolific organism on Earth, comprising over 5.1 million species that make up the 5th realm of life. By comparison, there are 25,000 known plant species and 68,000 identified animal species.
While fungi are the most recognizable part of fungal organisms, they are the fruiting body of a much larger and more complex system. The most important part of a fungus is the mycelium – thin microscopic threads functioning like giant webs invisible in the ground. Fungi contain spores, just as flowers contain pollen, which are virtually invisible particles responsible for reproduction. The spores can apparently survive anywhere in water, air, soil, plants, and animals. The spores can also live in extreme temperatures, high levels of radiation, and even in space.
The mycelium serves as the Earth’s recycler, breaking down organic matter in all ecosystems. A network of wires can total up to 8 miles per cubic inch of soil. This incredible amount of cellular material not only survives by breaking down the carbon-based material, but its web functions as a highway connecting other living species.
Plant life benefits from a symbiotic relationship within this mycelial network, functioning essentially as the Internet of nature. Scientists have observed trees sharing resources like water, minerals or other nutrients throughout the forest. If a tree is lacking in a specific nutrient or is affected by disease, other trees share resources to help a neighboring tree via the vast mycelial network.
Throughout history, mushrooms have served many different purposes. The Greeks and Native Americans used mushrooms to cauterize wounds and stop bleeding. Mushrooms are a great source of protein and vitamins but should be cooked, as raw mushrooms are indigestible. Penicillin, first developed in the 1920s, comes from the mold Penicillium.
The mycelium consumes bacteria and breaks down carbon-based materials, including hydrocarbons. Researchers are currently conducting experiments using the mycelium to break down oil and other fuels released into the environment. Bioluminescent mushrooms (mushrooms that glow) are found to be effective in cleaning up war zones by consuming the phosphorus found in landmines and ammunition. There is a growing area of research illustrating the role of fungi in the development of religion and human consciousness. (See: The Key to Immortality: The Secret History of the Nameless Religion, by Brian C Muraresku). In addition, the use of psilocybin mushrooms to treat psychological problems like PTSD and other forms of trauma is increasingly common.
Researchers continue to work on the application and large-scale use of the fungi. Perhaps this is the key to reversing some of the damage caused by man-made climate change and maintaining a habitable planet for generations to come.
Eliot Roseau, originally from Anderson, is the owner of Park Place Arts, a custom picture frame shop and art gallery in Anderson. He is one of the founding directors of Heart of the River Coalition. “On Nature” is published on Saturdays.