19: Fungi

Fungi, mushrooms, are misunderstood creatures. Firstly, they’re not vegetables, secondly all mushrooms are fungi but not all fungi are mushrooms, and thirdly they are actually the largest living thing on earth, not blue whales. This week we’ll be doing our best to understand fungi, and understand all the strange things I just said about them. I’ll write as much as I can but there’s not mushroom in here (ba dum chhhhhh!!)

The fly agaric mushroom. Very iconic, very poisonous!

What are fungi?

At its most basic level, life is classified into kingdoms, like the animal and the plant kingdom. Bacteria also have their own kingdom, and interestingly enough so do fungi. They are actually not plants at all but have been on an evolutionary tangent of their own for about 1.5 billion years.  One way you can see this is that unlike plants, fungi don’t photosynthesise, so they can’t turn sunlight into energy. Instead they get their energy from breaking down and decomposing things, which is why you’ll often see mushrooms growing on dead logs.

What is a fungus? Well, they can be really simple and unicellular like yeasts and mould. They can also be more complex (multicellular). These complex multicellular versions are usually mostly made up of hyphae, which are a network of branching structures that look a little bit like roots. These can grow throughout soil, or into the cracks of dead material like logs.

What is a mushroom then? Like an apple is the fruiting body of an apple tree, a mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus. It’s usually the only part we see above the ground so it’s the bit we know best, but it’s just the seasonal fungal fruit. The real creature is the hyphae which is mostly underground. Not all fungi even have mushrooms. The role of mushrooms is to help the fungi reproduce by spreading and catching spores which is best done above ground where the wind can carry these spores to other mushrooms easier, but some species just reproduce by cloning themselves underground.

The structure of a ‘fruiting’ fungi with mushroom up top and hyphae extending underground (Picture: Pearson Education)

Types and uses of fungi

Like the animal kingdom is hugely diverse, so is the fungal kingdom. As already mentioned, mould is a form of fungus. One type of mould is good at killing bacteria, and so has been developed to create penicillin which is an important antibiotic. Other moulds have been used to create lovastatin which lowers bad cholesterol, and cyclosporine from mould is used to help the body accept organ transplants by suppressing the immune system.

Yeast is also a type of fungus. This can be used to brew beer, bake bread and even produce biofuels. Button mushrooms and chanterelles are edible, not only for humans but for some animals too. At the same time the aptly names death cap mushroom can cause violent vomiting and diarrhoea within 12 hours of ingestion, eventually leading to death. It has taken down such notable figures as Pope Clement VII and possibly a Roman Emperor called Claudius.

Fungi also create some really important symbiotic (see plog 18:Symbiosis) relationships. Lichen is actually also not a plant, but a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. The fungi uses it’s hyphae to create a sort of skeleton and anchor into rocks and soil, whilst the algae grow on top of this skeleton and converts sunlight into energy, sharing this with the fungi.

Also, if you look back to plog 12:Trees, a special group of fungi called mycorrhizal fungi are work together with trees, attaching to their roots. They grow their tiny hyphae out into the soil to collect nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus for the tree, and in return the tree shares some of the sugars it has made in its leaves from the sunlight.

Even if you don’t like mushrooms then, the apples, cherries and life saving medicine that you may eat have been partly created by fungus, so it’s not all bad!

The mould which makes penicillin is also a fungi

Records and myth

Not only are fungi misunderstood, but they also have cool claims that are often forgotten about. Sure, a blue whale is the largest animal, and a redwood tree the largest plant, but fungi holds claim to being the largest organism on earth! This record is held by a honey fungus in the Blue Mountains in Oregon, whose hyphae connect in a network stretching out over 2.4miles (3.8km), and whose age is thought to be somewhere between 1900 and 8650 years old. This fungus not only breaks down deadwood. It often actually kills the trees that it wants to decompose, so can be considered a parasite. However, this decomposing role of fungus is really important as it allows the nutrients stored in a dead (or dying) organism to be released back into the environment to be used in new growth by other plants, and allows the circle of life to continue.

Speaking of circles- have you ever heard of a fairy ring? Fairy rings are strange circles that can appear on the ground especially in forests. Historically they have been thought to be the sites of witch dances, or where the devil went to churn milk. Scottish and Irish traditions say this is where fairies or elves went to dance. Generally they were seen as dangerous places that you shouldn’t enter as you may get bad luck or even get cursed. These fairy rings are actually created by fungi. A fungus will start growing and will spread it’s hyphae into the soil around it trying to find more nutrients. It will continue to grow in this circular way, but after a while it will have used up all the nutrients in the centre of the circle, so die off there. This will leave a ring of fungus, which will seasonally sprout mushrooms in the shape of the ring, and off season leave lumps or bare patches in this ring.

If you’re keen to investigate a fairy ring, but if you’re afraid of the curse risk, Northumbrian tradition says all you need to do is run around the ring 9 times in the light of a full moon and in the directions of the sun, then you’ll be safe. If you run around 10 times, you put yourself back into danger, so make sure you’re prepped maths and fitness wise beforehand.

A fairy ring, fit for dancing and cursing alike!

So there we have it. Fungi are a rather unexpected class of life who not only give us mushrooms but bread, apples, medicine, folklore and a pretty impressive size record for the record books. They can also give you diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal pain and death, but hey, no one’s perfect!

For more info:

More details from the good old Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/science/fungus

Some of the most poisonous mushrooms: https://www.planetdeadly.com/nature/poisonous-mushrooms

More info on the myths surrounding fairy rings, including some unusual ones found in Namibia: https://www.ancient-origins.net/human-origins-folklore/do-you-dare-enter-fairy-ring-mythical-mushroom-portals-supernatural-003677

Music: kongano.com

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