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Posts Tagged ‘fungus

“Attend to mushrooms and all other things will answer up”*…

Travis Boyer: Crush Blue, 2020

The living– and conscious?– infrastructure of the biosphere…

Imagine that you are afloat on your back in the sea. You have some sense of its vast, unknowable depths—worlds of life are surely darting about beneath you. Now imagine lying in a field, or on the forest floor. The same applies, though we rarely think of it: the dirt beneath you, whether a mile or a foot deep, is teeming with more organisms than researchers can quantify. Their best guess is that there are as many as one billion microbes in a single teaspoon of soil. Plant roots plunge and swerve like superhighways with an infinite number of on-ramps. And everywhere there are probing fungi.

Fungi are classified as their own kingdom, separate from plants and animals. They are often microscopic and reside mostly out of sight—mainly underground—but as Merlin Sheldrake writes in Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, they support and sustain nearly all living systems. Fungi are nature’s premiere destroyers and creators, digesting the world’s dead and leaving behind new soil. When millions of hair-like fungal threads—called hyphae—coalesce, felting themselves into complex shapes, they emerge from the ground as mushrooms. A mushroom is to a fungus as a pear is to a pear tree: the organism’s fruiting body, with spores instead of seeds. Mushrooms disperse spores by elaborate means: some species generate puffs of air to send them aloft, while others eject them by means of tiny, specialized catapults so they accelerate ten thousand times faster than a space shuttle during launch.

But Sheldrake is most interested in fungi’s other wonders—specifically, how they challenge our understanding of nonhuman intelligence and stretch the notion of biological individuality. Fungi infiltrate the roots of almost every plant, determining so much about its life that researchers are now asking whether plants can be considered plants without them. They are similarly interwoven throughout the human body, busily performing functions necessary to our health and well-being or, depending on the fungi’s species and lifestyle, wreaking havoc. All of this prompts doubts about what we thought we knew to be the boundaries between one organism and another…

ungi themselves form large networks of hyphae strands in order to feed. These strands, when massed together, are called mycelium. The total length of mycelium threaded through the globe’s uppermost four inches of soil is believed to be enough to span half the width of our galaxy. Mycelium is constantly moving, probing its surroundings in every direction and coordinating its movements over long distances. When food is found—a nice chunk of rotting wood, for example—disparate parts of the mycelium redirect to coalesce around it, excrete enzymes that digest it externally, and then absorb it. As Sheldrake puts it, “The difference between animals and fungi is simple: Animals put food in their bodies, whereas fungi put their bodies in the food.”

Fungi are literally woven into the roots and bodies of nearly every plant grown in natural conditions. “A plant’s fungal partners,” Sheldrake writes, “can have a noticeable impact on its growth.” In one striking example, he describes an experiment in which strawberries grown with different fungal partners changed their sweetness and shape. Bumblebees seemed able to discern the difference and were more attracted to the flowers of strawberry plants grown with certain fungal species. Elsewhere he discusses an experiment in which researchers took fungi that inhabited the roots of a species of coastal grass that grew readily in saltwater and added it to a dry-land grass that could not tolerate the sea. Suddenly the dry-land grass did just fine in brine.

Much has been written lately about trees communicating and sharing resources among themselves; healthy trees have been documented moving resources toward trees that have fallen ill. This is often characterized as friendship or altruism between trees, but it is not at all clear whether trees pass information or nutrients intentionally. What is clear, though, is that the fungal networks entwined in every tree root make this communication possible. “Why might it benefit a fungus to pass a warning between the multiple plants that it lives with?” Sheldrake asks. The answer is survival. “If a fungus is connected to several plants and one is attacked by aphids, the fungus will suffer as well as the plant,” he writes. “It is the fungus that stands to benefit from keeping the healthy plant alive.”…

Fungi are genetically closer to animals than to plants, and similar enough to humans at the molecular level that we benefit from many of their biochemical innovations. In fact, many of our pharmaceuticals are borrowed innovations from fungi. Penicillin, discovered in 1928 by the Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming, is a compound produced by fungus for protection against bacterial infection. The anti-cancer drug Taxol was originally isolated from the fungi that live inside yew trees. More than half of all enzymes used in industry are generated by fungi, Sheldrake notes, and 15 percent of all vaccines are produced using yeast. We are, as he puts it, “borrowing a fungal solution and rehousing it within our own bodies.”..

We know that fungi maintain “countless channels of chemical communication with other organisms,” and that they are constantly processing diverse information about their environment. Some can recognize color, thanks to receptors sensitive to blue and red light, though it is not entirely clear what they do with that information. Some even have opsins, light-detecting proteins also found within the rods and cones of the animal eye. One fungus, Phycomyces blakesleeanus, has a sensitivity to light similar to that of a human eye and can “detect light at levels as low as that provided by a single star” to help it decide where to grow. It is also able to sense the presence of nearby objects and will bend away from them before ever making contact. Still other fungi recognize texture; according to Sheldrake, the bean rust fungus has been demonstrated to detect grooves in artificial surfaces “three times shallower than the gap between the laser tracks on a CD.”

Can fungi, then, be said to have a mind of their own? That is, as Sheldrake puts it, a “question of taste”—there is no settled scientific definition for “intelligence,” not even for animals. The Latin root of the word means “to choose between,” an action fungi clearly do all the time. But the application of this kind of term to fungi is loaded with something more mystical than that simple definition and demands a willingness to rattle our sense of where we ourselves fall in the imagined hierarchy of life. If fungi can be said to think, it is a form of cognition so utterly different that we strain to see it.

After all, philosophers of mind like Daniel Dennett argue that drawing any neat line between nonhumans and humans with “real minds” is an “archaic myth.” Our brains evolved from nonmental material. “Brains are just one such network,” Sheldrake writes, “one way of processing information.” We still don’t know how the excitement of brain cells gives rise to experience. Can we really dismiss the possibility of cognition in an organism that clearly adapts, learns, and makes decisions simply based on the lack of a brain structure analogous to ours?

Perhaps there is intelligent life all around us, and our view is too human-centric to notice. Are fungi intelligent? Sheldrake reserves judgment, deferring instead to scientific mystery: “A sophisticated understanding of mycelium is yet to emerge.” Still, after spending long enough in the atmosphere of Sheldrake’s sporulating mind, I began to adopt the fungal perspective. I can’t help now but see something like a mind wherever there might be fungal threads—which is to say everywhere, a mesh-like entangled whole, all over the earth.

Fungi challenge our understanding of nonhuman intelligence and complicate the boundaries between one organism and another: “Our Silent Partners“– Zoë Schlanger (@zoeschlanger) reviewing Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures in @nybooks.

Why did the mushroom go to the party? Because he was a fungi.” – Lewis Tomlinson

* A. R. Ammons


As we ponder partnership, we might spare a thought for Jens Wilhelm August Lind; he died on this date in 1939. An apothecary, botanist and mycologist, he published a full account of all fungi collected in Denmark by his teacher, Emil Rostrup. Combining his pharmaceutical and mycological knowledge, he was early in experimenting with chemical control of plant pathogens.

Lind also collaborated with Knud Jessen on an account on the immigration history of weeds to Denmark.

Gravestone of Jens Lind and wife Gunild, at Viborg Cemetery


“You cannot store them To warm the winter’s cold, The lad that hopes for heaven shall fill his mouth with mould”*…

[Earlier this month] craving sweets, Colin Purrington remembered the Twinkies.

He’d purchased them back in 2012 for sentimental reasons when he heard that Hostess Brands was going bankrupt and Twinkies might disappear forever.

“When there’s no desserts in the house, you get desperate,” says Purrington, who went down to the basement and retrieved the old box of snack cakes, fully intending to enjoy several…

Like many people, Purrington believed Twinkies are basically immortal, although the official shelf life is 45 days. He removed a Twinkie from the box, unwrapped it — it looked fine — and took a bite. Then he retched. “It tasted like old sock,” Purrington says. “Not that I’ve ever eaten old sock.”

That’s when he examined the other Twinkies. Two looked weird. One had a dark-colored blemish the size of a quarter. The other Twinkie was completely transformed — it was gray, shrunken and wrinkly, like a dried morel mushroom.

He posted photos on Twitter, and they caught the attention of two scientists: Brian Lovett and Matt Kasson, who study fungi at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “Matt is going to want that Twinkie,” thought Lovett, the instant he saw the mummified one.

That’s because, in the past, their lab has tested how well molds grow in Peeps, the classic Easter treat. Fungi actually found it difficult to survive on Peeps, because of the food’s low water content. “In a way, they are kind of like an extreme environment, right?” Kasson notes. “The food industry has crafted the ability to make foods that have a long shelf life.

Still, Kasson says, fungi are everywhere and have an amazing set of chemical tools that let them break down all kinds of substances. “You find fungi growing on jet fuel,” he says…

They reached out to Purrington, who was only too happy to mail them the Twinkies immediately. “Science is a collaborative sport,” he says. “If someone can take this and figure out what was actually growing, I’m all in. I really want to know what species exactly was eating my Twinkies.”

The Twinkies arrived at the lab, and the researchers got to work…

The illuminating (if not appetizing) tale of “A Disturbing Twinkie That Has, So Far, Defied Science.”

* A.E. Housman


As we stop stockpiling snacks, we might send variously-well preserved birthday greetings to William A. Mitchell; he was born on this date in 1911.  A chemist who spent most of his career at General Foods, he was the inventor of Pop Rocks, Tang, quick-set Jell-O, Cool Whip, and powdered egg whites; over his career, he received over 70 patents almost all of them for processed food items or preparation procedures.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 21, 2020 at 1:01 am

“In the end everything is connected”*…


Ectomycorrhizal mushroom Dermocybe-1280x720

A fungus known as a Dermocybe forms part of the underground wood wide web that stitches together California’s forests [source]


Research has shown that beneath every forest and wood there is a complex underground web of roots, fungi and bacteria helping to connect trees and plants to one another.

This subterranean social network, nearly 500 million years old, has become known as the “wood wide web.”

Now, an international study has produced the first global map of the “mycorrhizal fungi networks” dominating this secretive world…

Mycorrhizal ecologist Dr Merlin Sheldrake, said, “Plants’ relationships with mycorrhizal fungi underpin much of life on land. This study … provides key information about who lives where, and why. This dataset will help researchers scale up from the very small to the very large.”…

fungus map

The underground network of microbes that connects trees—charted for first time: “Wood Wide Web: trees’ social networks are mapped.”

Read the Nature release that reports the research here.

* José Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons


As we contemplate connection, we might spare a thought for Anders (Andreas) Dahl; he died on this date in 1789.  A botanist and student of Carl Linnaeus, he is the inspiration for, the namesake of, the dahlia flower.


Dahlia, the flower named after Anders Dahl [source]



Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

Scoping scale…

On AndaBien, web designer Steve Rose pursues his extra-vocational enthusiasms… among them, evolution.

His Evolution Timeline is a marvelous evocation of the sheer temporal scale of our antecedents.

— From first life-forms to homo sapiens

* The background indicates inches and feet.
* 1/20th in. = roughly 100 thousand years. (108,000)
* 1 inch = about 2 million years. (2,160,000)
* 1 foot = about 26 million years. (25,920,000)
* The whole page is about 135 feet wide, almost half a football field, representing 3.5 billion years. (3,500,000,000)

The very beginning of the timeline (and of life on Earth)

So, be prepared to scroll…  and scroll and scroll and scroll…  And to learn.  (By way of reinforcing one’s sense the extraordinary sweep of it all, readers might also appreciate Rose’s “Evolution, The Movie.”)

As we struggle with the recent revisions to the tree of life and the suggestion that humans are more closely related to fungus than to plants, we might recall that it was on this date in 1886 that Coca-Cola was first sold to the public at the soda fountain in Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia.  It was formulated by pharmacist John Stith Pemberton, who mixed it in a 30-gallon brass kettle hung over a backyard fire.  Pemberton’s recipe, which survived in use until 1905, was marketed as a “brain and nerve tonic,” and contained extracts of cocaine and (caffeine-rich) kola nut. The name, using two C’s from its ingredients, was suggested by his bookkeeper Frank Robinson, whose excellent penmanship provided the famous scripted  “Coca-Cola” logo.

Pemberton’s Palace

Now, in addition to penicillin, we can credit mold with elegant design…

Quoting Science, Jim Nash at True/Slant reports on researchers at Hokkaido University who have used mold (Physarum polycephalum, a slime mold often found inside decaying logs) to design a transit system…  and found that our fungal friends did a very good job indeed.

The Physarum polycephalum built a replica of the Tokyo train system in 26 hours that’s just about as efficient, reliable and “expensive” to run as the real thing.

Slime mold expands from “Tokyo” to connect to oat flakes representing surrounding cities

…the scientists created a map of the Tokyo metro area using oat flakes for the major cities. Then they put a gelatinous blob (technically, a plasmodium) of Physarum on “Tokyo,” and sat back to see what would happen.

Within about 12 hours, the mold had covered the area with a thin and wet veined sheath of itself. By the 26th hour, the sheath was gone, replaced by mushy tunnels connecting the flakes. The tunnels mimicked Tokyo’s transit system…

…scientists think they can take what they’ve learned about self-organization from the slime mold and apply it to the construction of communication networks and other similar systems.

The whole story is here.

As we revel in the excuse to continue to put off cleaning our refrigerators, we might recall that it was on this date in 1812 that the largest (non-subduction zone) earthquake in U.S. history was recorded.  One the last in a series of roughly 1,000 tremblers to hit the New Madrid, MO area, the February 7 quake measured 8.3 on the Richter Scale; it destroyed New Madrid, and was felt as far away as New York City and Boston, Massachusetts, where church bells were made to ring.  (The 1906 San Francisco Quake registered at about 7.8, and was felt over a much smaller area.)

New Madrid. MO

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