Mushrooms- Below the surface
A mushroom is the visible part of the fungus and is responsible for the reproduction of what is arguably the most evolved form of life on this planet (Stamets, 2008). Mushrooms are not limited by a need for sunlight like most other creatures, and therefore, were able to thrive after the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs. This ancient form of life is the largest organism on the planet covering 3.8km of space and is a necessary part of existence.
Everyone has been taught about decomposers and their necessity in restarting the food chain. They are the beings above the carnivores that decompose all life into the basic components and resources used to fuel the herbivores. Eventually, you learn that these decomposers have a name, fungi.
The major component of fungi is the mycelium (Bayer, 2019). The mycelium is the system of webs that spread over an area and sprout mushrooms. Mushrooms are the parts of fungi that you are most familiar with, yet their sole purpose is reproduction (i.e. spreading spores to grow more mushrooms) and only grow in specific conditions.
The mycelium works in a similar way to the internet (Bayer, 2019). They allow for connections throughout a vast area that are almost immediate. It is suspected that this allows for communication between fungi over vast distances using the mycelium. The mycelium is also used for storage of resources such as water and nutrients and transfer them throughout the organism to maintain life throughout it.
The evolution of fungi allowed them to develop an advanced defence system against threats such as predators and disease (Stamets, 2008). In recent history, it has been discovered that the fungi produce chemicals to poison predators and heal diseases. Scientists compared the chemicals produced by fungi before and after being exposed to bacteria to see which new chemicals are released. By exposing the mushrooms to bacteria and viruses that affect humans, they release chemicals that counteract the disease’s attacks. These chemicals can then be synthesized and used to heal humans.
At first thought, it is confusing as to why fungi can be used to cure diseases in humans since they are a part of a different kingdom (TEDMED, 2012). Fungi were actually once thought to be a part of the plant kingdom and discoveries relating to fungi continue to reveal the truths about the organism and its similarities to animals. In fact, opisthokont has been designated as a superkingdom relating animals to fungi due to their similarities.
Fungi so far has been used to develop cures for smallpox and other illnesses (TEDMED, 2012). Their application, however, is attempting to be more widespread by creating flu vaccines. There is still much to understand about these vaccines however, such as why one mushroom might be more effective in creating a vaccine compared to another. This is an example of a developing technology in science.
Mushrooms and More
Overall, mushrooms are an invaluable material that has many functions that are now being discovered. Science is about discovering the new by studying the old, and what is older than a mushroom? After all, mother nature is truly the greatest inventor with years of evolution allowing time to perfect her creations.
Through science, we can further understand the uses of fungi. Even now a mushroom’s ability to decompose is being observed to observe its influence on seemingly non-biodegradable tools such as plastics (Stamets, 2008). Currently, observations are promising and the usefulness of fungi seems incredible. It appears to be that the future is brighter now that we have looked underground.
For more information regarding mushrooms and fungi, please see Paul Stamets Ted Talks in which he goes into detail about the uses of fungi and reflects upon his experiments.
Bayer, E. (1 July 2019). The Mycelium Revolution Is Upon Us. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/
Stamets, Paul. (March 2008). 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World. Ted. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_stamets_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world
TEDMED. (21 February 2012). Paul Stamets at TEDMED 2011. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXHDoROh2hA