Plants have been around for a long time; 700 million years to be exact. But fungi have been on Earth longer, making the first appearance on land 1,300 million years ago. Interestingly enough, the largest living organism in the world today is a honey fungus that measures 2.4 miles (3.8 km) in the Blue Mountains of Oregon.
Fungi exist almost everywhere that moisture is present. They can be found as single-celled organisms that are invisible to the naked eye or as multiple-celled organisms, such as mushrooms.
Fungi do not reproduce through sexual reproduction, seed, or photosynthesis, but rather through spores. These spores germinate to produce a dense network of interweaved, single-cell structures known as hyphae, which collectively assemble with incredible precision into much more complex structures called mycelium. The word “mycelium” is derived from New Latin and Greek origins and means “more than one”. The growth of mycelium is rapid; they release enzymes that help break down matter into a more digestible form, which they take in as energy.
Fungi belong to a group of decomposers that includes bacteria, nematodes, snails, beetles, and earthworms. They help break down dead plant and animal matter into more soluble forms of simple sugars, nitrates, and phosphates that are used by other decomposers or for food by plants. Fungi are so numerous that they make up a large proportion of the biomass in all ecosystems.
Essential To Life
The ecosystem and plants do not exist without fungi. Nutrients are rarely found in a soluble enough form for a plant’s roots to take up. Nitrogen, for example, the nutrient needed in the most significant amounts by plants, is usually trapped within proteins that cannot be easily accessed. That’s where fungi come in, metabolizing proteins and transforming them into more soluble nitrates.
A group of complex fungi exists that can form symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationships with plants. Mycorrhizal fungi facilitate the transfer of nutrients from the soil into the plant roots, and in return, receive carbon from the plant.
These symbiotic relationships begin when mycorrhizal fungus colonize a plant’s root zone and then spread out densely into the medium, forming a massive web that increases the surface area of the roots and the capacity for absorption. This web hyphae or “mycelium” can increase root mass by 300-8000 times the original size. Hyphae are so small they can squeeze and push their way around rocks and other obstructions, making collecting nutrients for the plants an easy task.
Imagine the mycelium as if it is a giant sponge that is attached to plant roots, soaking up large amounts of water and nutrients. The plants, as a result, receive a much improved and increased take-up of all the essential nutrient elements, but especially elemental phosphorus (P) zinc ( Zn) manganese (Mn) copper (Cu) and water.
The mycelium of a single mycorrhiza can extend and connect multiple plants of different species. They form a hybrid underground system called a “common mycorrhizal network”. This network allows plants to communicate as they transport sugar supplies to one another when they are needed.
Networks can be extraordinarily vast or widespread. Mycelium can be hundreds or even thousands of miles long, all compacted into a tiny area. It is estimated that there can be at least 200km of hyphae in every kilogram of soil!
Fungi And Human Health
Beyond plants, humans have also been successfully harnessing the incredible powers of fungi for thousands of years. For example, yeast, which is widely used for fermentation, produces countless products that we use every day. Medical science successfully applied the process of liquid fermentation to their research. In 1978, the first biosynthetic insulin using E. coli as a single-celled manufacturing plant was created and became one of the most compelling discoveries in the past 100 years.
Science has concentrated on learning about, cultivating, and manipulating fungi such as yeast, bacteria, and algae to its advantage. Fungi can be used in lifesaving drugs, bio-based fuels such as corn ethanol, fragrances, and other useful, small biological molecules.
Mycelium And Mushrooms
Mycelium has the potential to grow into much larger structures, also known as mushrooms. The mushrooms that we eat are just a small, visible part of the fungi organism. Like flowers, mushrooms bloom during certain times of the year when the conditions are just right; they are the fruit of these reproducing fungi. In nature, the chances of mushroom spores germinating and then producing a mushroom are quite slim. Environmental conditions have to be just right for a mushroom to grow. This explains why some species of mushrooms are so rare, sought after, and highly valued.
Mycologists can cultivate a specific species of mushroom as it forms in an environment where conditions are optimal. Under lab conditions, the mycelium can be persuaded to build a particular structure through the control of the variables of temperature, CO2, humidity, and airflow. The growth of mycelium fibers present as a visible speck after just a few hours. Within one week, it can transform into an 18”x12” sheet, 2” thick and weighing several pounds.
Mushroom Fibers Useful In So Many Ways
Much effort is put into recreating and manipulating the growth of mushroom fibers because they offer so many benefits to our lives. When used as a controlled technology, mycelium can help reduce the use of plastics. Mycelium is also used to produce materials for a wide range of items, including packaging, clothing, food, and construction materials.
Mycelium is also a valid meat alternative; think plant-based steak. Eating more vegetarian foods has been found to have a minimal environmental footprint by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions and harmful effects on agricultural land commonly associated with raising cattle.
The production of mycelium-based, self-repairing structures, where you add water and watch them grow is a fantastic development that shows the possible potential of using fungi in new and exciting ways. There are also mycelium cultivation projects in development by DARPA, which see mycelium automatically produce antidotes when exposed to specific toxins. DARPA is an agency of the United States Department of Defense, responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military.
Self-assembling organisms maintain natural ecosystems. Fungi, its mycelium, and subsequent mushroom fruit play an integral role in sustaining all plant life and natural processes. With natural and raw resources being overused and wasted, it makes perfect sense that we should use anything we can to steer and repair our stressed environment.
So Much Left To Learn
Biological technology is a powerful and untapped resource. With appropriate research and development, we can put it to good use. Previously put into the same culinary box as vegetables and herbs, mushrooms and fungi have a much higher worth than what they were originally thought to possess. We are only now starting to unlock their true potential and special magic!