B:By now you’ve probably heard of “zombie mushrooms” that are able to mimic their insect behavior to a puppet with amazing accuracy. One such mushroom, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, infects carpenter ants. Once infected with the fungus, ants lose their instinctive fear of heights and climb the nearest plant. In time, the fungus forces the ant to clamp its jaws around the plant in a “death grip.” The fungus then digests the ant’s body and pulls out a stalk-like structure from its head, from which the spores are poured onto ants passing below.
Unlike the fictional killer zombie mushrooms in the recent post-apocalyptic HBO series, The Last of Us, zombie fungi have never been found to infect mammals. But it is not surprising that they enliven our imagination. thinking about mushrooms makes a world of difference. Fungi comprise one of the kingdoms of life, a category as broad as “animals” or “plants,” and are central to understanding the planet we live on. They are within you and around you. They support you and everything you depend on. As you read these words, fungi are preparing soil, producing food, making medicine, feeding and killing animals and plants, and influencing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere.
Mushroom fact is more remarkable than mushroom fiction. And as we look to the future of life on a damaged planet, what can we do to nurture intergenerational relationships with this intelligent and vastly diverse group of organisms?
Read more: How HBO’s The Last of Us tries to capture the complex morality of a video game
Most fungi live most of their lives not as mushrooms, but as branching, fused networks of tubular cells known as mycelium. Mycelial networks do not have a fixed shape. By transforming themselves, they can navigate mazes and expertly explore their surroundings. Worldwide, the total length of fungal mycelium in the top 10 centimeters of soil is more than 450,000 quadrillion kilometers, about half the width of our galaxy. Most plants depend on symbiotic fungi that weave through the roots and leaves, providing the plants with essential nutrients and protecting them from disease and drought. Bacteria use fungal networks as highways to navigate packed soil rot. Much of the carbon found in soils, which is twice the amount of carbon found in plants and the atmosphere combined, is bound up in hard organic compounds produced by fungi. Fungal webs form an ancient life support system that easily qualifies as one of the wonders of the living world.
The rising tide of interest in mushrooms is welcome and long overdue. But why now? What has led to the current rise in mushroom fascination? Exciting new research made possible by technologies such as DNA sequencing plays a major role; now, more than ever, we are better equipped to uncover their secrets and understand their complexities. Exciting fungal discoveries have found a receptive audience thanks in part to a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of the living world. Mushrooms are powerful reminders of the intimate, mutual relationships that sustain all life. Furthermore, fungi are good poster organisms for network thinking; The recent wave of public interest in fungi has coincided with the rise of network concepts in many disciplines, from computing, sociology, and neuroscience to economics and astronomy.
But perhaps the strongest driver of popular interest in fungi has been a growing awareness of the many ways we can partner with fungi to adapt to worsening environmental and health crises. Mushrooms are metabolic wizards, and their chemical achievements have long shaped human life: bread, cheese, soy sauce, penicillin, powerful antiviral and anticancer compounds, cholesterol-lowering statins, and immune-suppressing drugs that enable organ transplants; alcohol (fermented with yeast) and psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in the psychedelic mushroom that holds promise for treating severe depression and anxiety). Fungal fungi can be used to break down pollutants, such as crude oil from oil spills, in a process known as mycoremediation. In mycofabrication, building materials and textiles can be grown from mycelium and used as substitutes for plastics and leather.
Read more: Are mushrooms healthy? Here’s what the experts say
Although fungi are the main allies of humans, it is also true that a small minority can cause serious problems. Fungal infections kill about 2 million people each year. Fungal plant diseases cause billions of dollars in damage. rice blast fungus destroys quantities of rice large enough to feed more than 60 million people each year. Fungal diseases of trees, from Dutch elm disease to chestnut blight, are transforming forests and landscapes. The impact of fungal diseases is increasing worldwide due to trade and unsustainable agricultural practices, and the widespread use of antifungal chemicals has led to an unprecedented increase in new fungal superbugs that threaten both human and plant health.
Given that we have no choice but to interact with fungi, how can we ensure a healthy future with them?
First, mushrooms should be included in conservation. Fungi play an important role in planetary biodiversity. When we disrupt them, we jeopardize the health and resilience of the organisms on which we all depend. Despite the fact that we are destroying the planet’s fungal communities at an alarming rate, most environmental laws and international conventions, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. (CBD), along with many major international NGOs, are concerned with conservation Flora (plants) and: Animal world (animals): Add a third “F”, Mushroom, listing will bring this neglected kingdom of life into conservation and agricultural policy frameworks and unlock critical funding for mycological research, research and education programs.
We also need to invest in mushroom research. Fungi are a kingdom of life that has not received the attention of a kingdom, and our ignorance is easily summed up. Current estimates suggest that less than 10% of all fungal species have been described. It was not until 1969 that fungi were recognized as their own kingdom of life, which entrenched a disciplinary bias; there are fewer opportunities to study fungi than animals and plants. Although fungal pathogens are on the rise, vaccines against fungal infections have not been developed, and the small number of antifungal drugs that do exist are increasingly ineffective. A deeper understanding of fungal life will aid vital conservation and restoration projects, as well as spur much-needed innovation in fungal technologies.
Above all, we need to invest in mushroom education. Mushrooms are largely absent from school and undergraduate curricula, perpetuating our mushroom blindness and actively distorting our worldview. Accounts of the living world that do not include fungi are accounts of the nonexistent world.
Fungi have long sustained and enriched life on Earth. We are unimaginable without them, and yet we are only just beginning to understand the complexities of fungal life. It’s time we give them the attention they deserve.
More must-reads from TIME