Issue 17: fascinating fungi facts
A tribute to the myriad organisms that make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures.
Today’s newsletter is pretty much a fangirl homage to Merlin Sheldrake’s ‘Entangled Life’.
The Sunday Times bestseller and winner of the 2021 Royal Society Science Book Prize explains how “fungi are everywhere… Inside you and around you, sustain[ing] you and all that you depend on… They are eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behaviour, and influencing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere”.
Originally, I borrowed the book from my local library. I enjoyed it so much that I put it on my Christmas list last year. I wanted a copy of my own to keep and refer to.
This kingdom of organisms (yes, there are that many types of fungi – it’s a taxonomic category as broad as ‘plants’ or ‘animals’!) is so fascinating, I want to share some of my favourite facts from the book.
Fungi are as efficient as any road network planner
Fungi are used to exploring complex three-dimensional environments (such as soil) to search for food. So, Lynne Boddy, a professor of microbial ecology at Cardiff University, decided to test how far that skill could be stretched.
She created a map of Great Britain, using soil for the land masses and blocks of fungus-colonised wood (proportionate to population size) to mark out the cities. The fungus, Hypholoma fasciculare, grew out of from one ‘city’ towards the next in the same pattern as the country's motorway network. "You could see the M5, M4, M1, M6," Boddy marvelled.
Fungi use mind control to further their own survival
Ophiocordyceps unilateralisis is a parasitic or ‘zombie’ fungus, and it can control the behaviour of its insect host – the carpenter ant – with exquisite precision.
Once infected, the ant is forced to climb a plant, orient itself according to the noon sun, and clamp its jaws around a leaf’s major vein (known as a “death grip”). Once the ant is in place, the fungus grows out of its feet, securing it to the spot. Then, stalks sprout from the ant’s head, and shower spores down onto insects below, thus beginning the cycle again.
Sheldrake says the fungus has a 98% success rate of compelling ants to perform the death grip "in a zone with just the right temperature and humidity to allow the fungus to fruit: a height of 25cm above the forest floor".
Fungi can save and improve lives
Parasitic fungi use a variety of techniques to influence their hosts’ behaviour (as detailed above). One of those ways is immunosuppressants, which over-ride insects' defensive responses.
Two such compounds have proven to be extremely beneficial to mainstream medicine:
Cyclosporine is an immunosuppressant drug that makes organ transplants possible.
Myriocine has become the multiple sclerosis drug Fingolimod (sold under the brand name Gilenya). Sheldrake says it was “originally extracted from fungus-infested wasps that are eaten in parts of China as a nostrum for eternal youth”.
Fungi enabled plant life on earth; can substitute the sun
More than 90% of plants rely on relationships with fungi to survive.
Indeed, the first algae were only able to leave the sea 500million years ago and become land-dwelling plants because of fungi. It served as their root system for tens of millions of years until plants evolved their own.
But some plants have taken that reliance to the extreme – evolving to substitute fungi for the sun as their source of power and doing away with the need to photosynthesise. These plants – known as mycoheterotrophs – lose their chlorophyll, and in turn, their green colour. Some have evolved new colours, like the bright red Sarcodes sanguinea, and others have lost colour altogether, like the white ghost plant, Monotropa uniflora.
Fungi might be responsible for humanity as we know it
And all the above is not to mention the theories that fungi shaped who we are as humans today.
Evidence of religion, complex social organisation, trade, and the earliest art, all arose in a relatively short period, around 50,000-70,000 years ago. Was human consumption of the psychoactive fungi, psilocybin mushrooms, what sparked our biological, cultural, and spiritual evolution?
What’s certainly plausible, is that another type of fungi – yeast – was responsible for the cultural transformation of humans from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, around 12,000 years ago. Yeast resembling that we use for brewing today, arose around the same time as domesticated goats and sheep. Although, Sheldrake says, there’s still debate whether it was “for bread or for beer that humans started to give up their nomadic lifestyles and settle into sedentary societies”.
Buy your own copy of ‘Entangled Life’.
Related: You can’t go far wrong following the recommendations of Present & Correct. They have great taste in stationery; and documentaries.
‘The Truffle Hunters’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to hit reply to share your thoughts or feedback.
Til next time,
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