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Managers, warriors, harbingers: fungi as nature’s open-air nervous system

by AprilSix Proof

Photo by Andreas Wagner on Unsplash

 

It was halfway through my first week in the AprilSix Proof office that I realised that everyone is, secretly, a science nerd.

I was going through the daily news when I came across an article about my favourite organisms on earth (humans included): fungi. Even better, gold-scavenging fungi.

When you have a science background, it’s easy to get excited about invisible things. Caught up in the emotional turmoil, I decided to share the piece of news with the rest of the office, thinking they might read the title before moving onto the next article. Well, I can’t tell you how excited they got about mushrooms, and how surprised I was!

So, here we are, talking about these fun-guy(s). Let’s momentarily forget about those juicy Portobellos that make a good substitute for a meat patty. Today I want to talk about moulds, yeasts, parasites, anything even slightly disgusting. Why? Because they’re the best fungi to stalk (okay, I’ll stop).

Some fungi are like infections. They act selfishly and, in order to grow, they penetrate inside of the host’s tissues and break them down, causing illness and death. Others, however, live in relationships where both the host and the parasite benefit from each other’s presence. Plants and fungi have a special friendship that dates millions of years back. By growing on the plant roots, the fungus gets food from the plant, while providing it with extra nutrients from the ground. This special relationship paved the way for the first trek from sea to land around 1 billion years ago, as fungal fossils recently revealed.

Plant after plant, root after root, fungi colonise every inch of the soil. They create links, through hidden wires travelling underground to connect organisms that would otherwise be isolated. Once they are connected, plants can receive information, chemical data (they even engage in biochemical warfare) and nutrients from the network. When plants get infected by a fungus, it’s like accessing the Internet for the first time. Here, WWW stands for Wood Wide Web.

The web is incredibly active. When you walk in a forest, or when a fire starts, the fungal network responds, acting like nature’s open-air nervous system.

Fungi are more similar to humans than organisms from any other kingdom. They get attacked by the same bacteria as we do; in fact, most of our precious antibiotics come from fungi. They’re also great at delegating. When decomposing substances, fungi let external enzymes that lie on their surface do the job. By entrusting enzyme minions with this important task, fungi avoid wasting any energy and can grow peacefully.

 

Photo by Sandis Helvigs on Unsplash

 

Managers, warriors, harbingers; fungi are the secret bosses of this planet. Unsurprising, since they are also the largest organism alive.

Industrially, fungi are climbing up the ladder of success as ‘trash-eaters’. Despite a preference for wood, some mushrooms snack on unusual materials like petroleum, plastic, arsenic, mercury and radioactive waste. Yeast, instead, prefers waste crops, another delightful nibble that gets turned into ethanol fuel.

It’s not only their destructive and transformative power, but fungi also make an excellent resource for durable, flexible and resistant materials. MycoWorks has foreseen this potential and is creating substitutes for leather, polyester, bricks and concrete made entirely with mushrooms. What initially started as an art experiment is now turning into a commercially-scalable product, whose only barrier seems to be the cost of production (50 times higher than for plastic). With automation on the doorstep, it won’t be a problem for long.

Now, if you’re not thinking that disgusting fungi are amazing, I don’t know what will convince you. During the fungal chat that started all of this, some people in the office were a bit reticent, just like you. But in a team of science communicators, unsuspected, abstract things can easily turn into moments of wonder. That’s what we do every day, when we turn complex science into digestible, and compelling content that people understand, but more importantly, act on.

In this case, it was admiration for moulds that I was going for. But that’s not for everyone.

You can ignore parasites and go back to enjoying mushrooms and fancy truffles.

Even then, you’d make a wise decision, as they seem to be fierce enemies of cancer. What great organisms!

 

If you have any questions about my blog, please email me Alice.pistono@aprilsixproof.com