Mary Beth Writes

2-22-2023

F is for Fungi!

There’s so much more going on here than we thought when we thought we knew what was going on here.

Fungi? Fungus? Fungi refers to the whole shebang of multi-cellular organisms that have a nucleus plus a single wall cell made of chitin. Fungus is the term when talking about one branch of the ginormous fungi family. There are 144,000 known species of Fungi, which includes yeasts, rusts, smuts, mildews, molds, and mushrooms.

We hiked at Scuppernong this weekend and this is, I think, a smut.

Fungi are more like animals than plants. Plants have chlorophyll so they can make their own food. Fungi, like us, have to go out and find their supper. They do this by sending strand-like parts of their body called hyphae (‘hi-fee’) directly into their food. You’ve seen this when you dig in the dirt; hyphae are those thin white strands. Fungi secrete chemicals through the hyphae to break organic material down into simpler molecules i.e., a fungi-ready juice they can absorb directly into their cells.

Chitin is an important word in fungi-world. It’s the stiff stuff that forms fungi’s cell walls. It holds in water as it gives hyphae the structure and strength needed to push into material that weighs far more than a skinny length of hyphae. Chitin is also the stuff that makes lobsters and other crustaceans hard. It’s in the exoskeleton of bugs. Chitin is what makes whiskers (!) and is similar to the keratin that makes our hair.

 Chitin is utilized in many products but this is the one that caught my attention. Chitin is very strong for a certain amount of time but then dissolves. They use it to make self-dissolving surgical thread!

 What does fungi eat? Everything! Without fungi we would be crushed under all the stuff that has ever grown and expired. Example, these whole wheat rolls we forgot to eat. (Oops) Little mold animals are doing earth a favor, trying to turn them from yuck to energy.

 Scientists know (since 2011) some fungus families can digest plastic; some even do this in oxygen-free environments such as garbage dumps. Fungi is an option to address the unfathomable mountains of plastic garbage in our environment – as soon as we prioritize the problem and fund the development of ways to implement this solution. Some fungi can clean up oil spills and toxic chemicals. Radiation-loving mushrooms were used to clean up the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Japan, after guys found fungus growing inside the ruined reactors.

The body of a fungus is made of the many threads of hyphae which are called the mycelium – which functions as both stomach and brain. The mycelium is aware of its surroundings. It responds to changes in its environment. As conditions change, mycelium produces strong antibiotic and antiviral compounds to protect itself and ensure its existence – like penicillin which is fungus protecting itself from bacteria.

And what are mushrooms, you ask? They are the “flower” of fungi. The plant is underground and growing but it sends up mushrooms to disperse spores. Some mushrooms can cure some cancers. Others can kill you in 10 seconds. Let the picker beware.

…..

Most of us were raised in the worldview that life on earth was organized by hierarchy. There were the unimportant flotsam and jetsam of the natural world such as bugs, small boring brown animals, weeds, dead trees, unimpressive scrap trees. Certainly, fungi were not much more than dirt. Important creatures were big flashy animals – lions and tigers and bears, oh my. And of course, the most essential of all earth’s beings – humans.

We understood nature the way we understood European political structure. The powerful king, his (sic) lords and lieges, soldiers, religious males, rich mega business men. Women of childbearing age. The children of the men listed above as soon as the women are done raising them.

Next down the hierarchical chain from humans were the big animals – probably why “trophy hunting” became a thing. Important people killing important animals feeds into this toxic loop.

At the bottom of nature’s hierarchy were plants, debris, waterways, the plentiful birds and animals and bugs and bees. And then the gooey fragile boring things that live under rocks and in the soil.

 We are beginning to understand this fraught joke. Remove humans and the earth will be fine and probably better.

 Remove fungi and life on earth will collapse.

There’s so much more going on here than we thought when we thought we knew what was going on here.

 Hyphae spread over v-a-s-t areas underground. They meet other funguses. They meet roots of other plants and trees. Always hyphae are “communicating” via chemistry. Fungi knows what it needs to thrive, it grows outward and forward to find and take in those nutrients. It chemically reads the roots of the plants it meets and bypasses as it grows. It “knows” what those plants and trees are taking in and secreting and chemically shares and exchanges that information with all the roots it meets – allowing earth’s plants and trees and forests and deserts to amplify and modify growth and defenses. This fungal network enables plant roots to access 100,000 times more soil than those plants could chemically assess alone.

Remember, these zillions of teeny intersections are going on all the time everywhere. These intersections promote healthy growing, warn of toxic sites, bring nutrients to each living thing via the plants and then the animals that eat the plants.

Knowing the health of the fungal network is one of the most powerful ways of understanding the health of earth. To that end, right now there is a world-wide project to map the current state of the fungal network in many vulnerable places on earth.

Click here to read more about the world wide fungi mapping project which is far more interesting than you think. 

 There’s so much more going on here than we thought when we thought we knew what was going on here.

 

 

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