If we were living in the Star Trek Discovery Universe, we could be using a Spore Drive powered by a mycelial network to jump from galaxy to galaxy to fight the Klingon Federation. But while a Spore Drive traversing the mycelial network is the stuff of science fiction, the network is quite real, and it is what plants in an area used to communicate and talk to each other. You can call this network the ‘Wood Wide Web. It’s the earth’s first natural information superhighway.
About the Mycelial Network
Mycelial are parts of fungi. They resemble filaments, and when threading through the soil, they are like thin plant roots. The first person to discover the mycelial network was Albert Bernard Frank, a 19th-century German biologist.
Albert Bernard Frank discovered a symbiotic relationship between the roots of plants and colonies of fungi in an area. Species of fungi develop mycelium, which reaches deep in the ground such that the roots of different plants are connected, not just fungi but different species in an area.
It’s through this mycelial network that plants locate water, share nutrients. In return, the fungi protect the plant roots from infection. The German biologist coined the term ‘mycorrhiza’ for this symbiotic relationship.
Now, we know that 9 out of 10 land-based plants are connected through the mycelial network.
What Role Does Fungi Play in the Way Trees Talk to Each Other?
Fungi help plants grow and survive. Plants locate water using the mycelial network and provide essential nutrients via the mycelial around their roots. In turn, the fungi help plant fight infection.
This fungi-plants interaction is symbiotic. It is for this reason that you’ll find mushrooms next to trees in a forest. In fact, different species are so interconnected that some researchers say it’s hard to recognize them as individuals anymore.
Researchers say there are startling similarities between the mycorrhizal network and the first internet called ARPANET. Observing its actions under the electron microscope, several researchers say its mechanisms is like that of the nervous system.
Importance of the mycorrhizal network include:
It acts as a communication network connecting even plants that are far apart. Plants use the mycorrhizal network for the following advantages:
Locating water and exchanging nutrients
The presence of the mycelial network enables plants to locate water and transfer nutrients. Land-based trees pass nutrients such as nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus back and forth through the mycelial network.
For example, Suzanne Simard, a researcher at the University of Columbia, established that this kind of nutrient sharing via mycelial exists between paper birches and Douglas fir trees. It helps reduce water and nutrients stress, especially in dry habitats. She even says small plants benefit from this dynamic.
Sending warning signals
Studies show that plants don’t only use the mycorrhizal network to share nutrients but also form defenses. For example, in the event of an insect infestation, sugar maple trees and poplars send warning signals to each other so the species not infected gets ready with anti-insect chemicals.
Tomato plants, too, have shown this behavior. In a 2010 research at the South China Agricultural University, Ren Sen Zeng established that the individual tomato plants can use mycelial networks to ‘eavesdrop’ on their neighbor’s defense responses.
In the study, pairs of tomato plants were grown on pots, and mycorrhizae were allowed to form in some of the pots. Once the networks had grown, Zing sprayed a blight-causing fungus on one plant in each pair and used air-tight plastic bags to prevent signal exchanges through the air. After 65 hours, he tried infecting the second plants in the pot and observed they had developed some kind of resistance to the disease.
Fighting off infections
The presence of mycelial threads near plant roots also improves the immune system of the plants. It is referred to as ‘Priming.’ The mycelia triggers the production of protective compounds, which are then stored in the plants’ roots for later use.
Simply joining a mycorrhizal network makes a plant’s immune system stronger against infections. Priming makes quick response to infections possible. The immune system is also more efficient. In turn, the plants supply the fungi with carbohydrates consistently.
Fungi also promote soil bacteria activity.
The presence of a mycorrhizal network promotes the germination and survival of bacteria. Fungi-bacteria activities are significantly diverse and essential for lots of ecosystem processes.
Bacteria help recycle nutrients keeping soil healthy and very productive. They help decompose organic residues, so nutrients get back into the soil. Others are mutualists; they help convert atmospheric nitrogen to use nitrogen. Others consume ae consumed by Protozoa and converted into ammonia.
In a nutrient-deficient microhabitat, fungi presence stimulates the germination and development of bacterial spores leading to a sustainable ecosystem.
But just like the human’s internet has a dark side, the mycelial network is not without its share of troubles.
The Dark Side of the Mycorrhizal Network
The interconnectivity of plants through fungal filament parts increases the likelihood of attack from harmful neighbors. The mycelial network undermines plant isolation, facilitates the spread of infections, and allows the stealing of nutrients.
Individual plants always compete with neighbors for nutrients. Part of the competition means releasing harmful chemicals to ward off encroaching species. If a network exists, these chemicals can reach far and wide, affecting other species’ survival in the area. This phenomenon is referred to as Allelopathy.
One common example of the Allelopathy mechanism is that of the Black walnut tree. By releasing harmful juglone in the soil, the tree inhibits potatoes and cucumbers’ growth in the area.
Plants steal resources from each other using the network, too. Especially, species lacking chlorophyll, since they don’t do photosynthesis, they steal carbon from neighboring trees using the network.
Some crafty species even have the ability to alter fungal communities, allowing the growth of fungi networks that only they can join. That way, they are in a superior position to target and eliminate rival trees. How malicious!
Animals’ species can also exploit fungal networks. For example, when plants send signals to invite beneficial bacteria to their roots, harmful insects can show up too when they intercept this signal.
Are Fungi Immortal? – Do They Ever Die or Just Keep Reproducing?
Fungi are not immortal but can survive for an extended period over a vast area you might as well consider them as such. A fungus is a eukaryotic organism. Fungi species include mushrooms, yeast, and mold. They can be unicellular or multicellular. Most species of fungi are microscopic; others produce fruitbodies known as mushrooms.
Some species of fungi reproduce asexually; others do it sexually by forming spores containing fruitbodies. Spores are very tiny cells. They move from one place to the other via air currents, water, and animal bodies.
Fungi don’t produce their own foods. They secure nutrients from the surfaces they grow on by secreting enzymes to digest the food, which is then absorbed. They absorb and ‘digest’ various carbohydrates, including fructose, sucrose, glucose, xylose, starch, and cellulose. Many fungi also breakdown proteins into carbon and nitrogen.
Spores grow where there is plenty of moisture and food to produce hyphae. Development in the fungi mostly occurs at the hypha tips branching out into a mycelial network. As long as the settings are favorable, the hyphae can keep on growing for years. In fact, scientists say it is possible to find mycelia that are thousands of years old in places not shaken by humans and acts of nature.
For example, in 2006, botanists and mycologists in the U.S discovered the largest fungus colony in the world in eastern Oregon. It covered 2,200 acres of land, larger than any other organism ever measured. The researchers said it had been growing for 2,400 years, and they only discovered it when trees in the forest began to die.
Fungal activity is not always beneficial. Excess fungi can result in blight and root rot in plants. They also increase soil salinity and compete with plants for nutrients.
Preventing Fungi from Growing
You can keep fungi at bay using the following tips. Follow the steps carefully because fungus is hard to kill.
Fertilizer, especially organic homemade manure, is a great source of nutrients to keep fungi going for years. If you want to reduce fungi activity, cut down on the user of fertilizers. If you have to use it, make sure it is dry and properly decomposed.
Don’t water too much.
An overwatered garden combined with heat from the sun is kind of a vacation spot for fungi. Avoid making your garden soil soggy.
Use kitchen chemicals
Fungus can also be killed using everyday kitchen products, including cinnamon, baking soda, garlic paste, and neem tree oil.
At What Temperatures Do Fungi Die?
While heat and soggy water are rich conditions for fungi growth, excess heat is not good for fungi. At home, you can keep the eukaryote off your food by raising the temperature to 98.6 Fahrenheit. 98.6 Fahrenheit is also the average body temperature. It’s just warm enough to keep fungi at bay but not too hot for our comfort.
What Eats Mushroom Mycelium in Nature?
Mushroom mycelium is a source of protein, fiber, and medicine for various animals, including humans, birds, and insects.
While you may only be familiar with edible mushrooms, mycelia from the gourmet mushrooms are a tasty substitute for meat. In fact, cultures over the world have been munching mycelium for centuries. For example, Tempeh, a traditional Indonesian cuisine, is prepared from soybeans fermented using mycelium. The mycelium helps bind the beans together.
Insects, too, get their nutrients from fungal mycelium. For example, termites cultivate a fungus known as Termitomyces as the source of protein, enzymes, and sugars. Ants, too, raise their larvae on farmed fungi.
Birds love their mycelium and ‘shrooms too. Canada jays and Oregon jays have been known to feed on fungi. During early winter, for example, Siberian jays depend only on fungi for food. Even hunters use fungi as bait for birds.
Fungi feed on each other, too; the phenomenon is called mycoparasitism. For example, Collybia grows on dead fungi. It produces enzymes that breakdown the cell walls of the fungi for absorption. Other parasitic fungi inject toxins into live fungi, creating holes in the walls of the host cells. This way, the parasitic fungi reach into the host for food.
Some bacteria gain nutrition from living fungi too. The phenomenon is known as bacteria mycophagy. The bacteria either kill the fungi or stimulate it to produce more material for food. Some just enter the fungi and feed on it from the inside.
What are the Benefits of Fungi to Humans?
As already mentioned, fungi have a culinary, medicinal, and artistic application for humans.
For centuries cultures around the world have been using edible mushroom species of fungi for culinary applications.
· Excellent source of proteins and fibers
Mushrooms are delicious and rich in proteins and fibers. Shrooms such as morels, chanterelles, shiitake, and truffles have begun showing up on supermarkets shelves in the western world as people look for an environmental-friendly alternative to meat.
· Used in pizza and bread making
Yeast, a species of fungi, is used in the preparation of bread., When added to the dough, it makes the bread rise, resulting in softer, lighter bread. This is possible because the yeast breaks down sugars in the dough to co2 and ethanol. Some version of baker’s yeast is also used to make pizza. This is deactivated yeast. It is not leavening but helps increase the extensibility of dough.
· Used in fermentation processes
Some species of fungi are also used in the fermentation processes. For example, special penicillium molds are used to achieve a pungent taste and blue veins in the making of cheese.
Wild yeasts are also used in the fermentation process to manufacture beer from grains. They help breakdown sugars into ethyl alcohol and co2.
Apart from culinary significance, mycelium has got medicinal value too. Fungal hyphae produce various compounds to defend against predators and pathogens. These compounds accumulate in the organism for years and offer biological advantages to other species, including humans.
For example, Penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, is derived from bread mold. Another drug derived from the mold is cephalosporins. Apart from pharmaceutical drugs, mushrooms also have medicinal benefits when eaten raw. Psychedelic and adaptogenic mushrooms, too, are used to combat depression, boost sex drive, improve athletic performance, and fight inflammation.
Here is a breakdown of the best medicinal mushroom supplements:
· Cordyceps: Useful in treating fatigue, boosting energy and sex drive
· Lion’s Mane: A natural brain booster with enzymes to stop cognitive decline
· Turkey Tail: Effective against certain types of cancers and inflammations
· Chaga: Rich in antioxidants to fight harmful radicals in the body
· Shiitake: has antiviral and anticancer properties.
But fungi are not good for culinary and medicinal value only. Another use of fungi is in the manufacture of packaging as a replacement for the non-biodegradable packaging.
Ecovative, a re-known packaging manufacturer, is using mycelium for artistic purposes. Their mushroom packaging utilizes farm waste as the mold onto which the fungus attaches itself and grows to form fibers that bind into a strong, solid bag. And that’s a win for the good guys!
Making soil healthy and productive
In moderate amounts, fungi boost the water retention capacity of the soil. This is possible because the hyphae bind soil particles resulting in stable aggregates that can hold water for longer.
In fact, using fungus moss for mulching is an effective way to prevent over-drying. Even some agricultural supply stores sell mycelium fungal inoculants to help modify soils.
Soil fungi can also be classified as decomposers. These are special groups of fungi that break even the hardest organic residues into small molecules, including co2 and organic acids. Consequently, they help increase nutrients in the soil.
Used in laboratory researches
Fungi are significantly related to humans than plants. Consequently, they make useful research organisms. For example, the examination of bread mold structures gave birth to modern genetics. Another advantage of fungi is that they are not hard to alter genetically.
Metarhizium anisopliae and Beauveria bassiana species of fungi are used to manufacture insecticides. The advantage is that if consumed by humans accidentally, they don’t cause sickness.
Fungi-based insecticides are also effective against a wide variety of insects compared to chemical pesticides. And they are not only useful against insects, but you can use them against pathogens, too.
When sprayed on dying plants, the fungi-based insecticides break it down into useful matter. On the other hand, chemical pesticides don’t help break down organic matter.
Are Fungi More Common on Land or in Water?
Fungi are found all over the world in various habitats, even desserts. Some species of fungi survive on land. Others thrive in marine environments only. Most species of fungi are land-based. Best habitats for fungi include:
Woods and meadows
8 in 10 known species of fungi grow and thrive in woods and meadows. They develop a symbiotic relationship with the nearby plants through a mycorrhizal network. Some form a symbiotic relationship with single trees. Others connect to multiple trees.
Water and warm temperatures are the best conditions for the survival of the fungi. Soil acidity and chalkiness matter, too. In fact, some fungi associate with specific trees only if they are growing in suitable soil.
Marine fungi love fresh or seawater. They can be completely or partly submerged. Some marine fungi grow exclusively in water. Others can survive on land too.
Open grassy areas
Some species of fungi grow in open, grassy areas; these are mostly edible mushrooms. Some grow in large numbers in animal dung. Over the years, fungi have developed modifications to survive in various habitats. These include large gills for maximum spore production, thicker spores to survive harsh conditions, and toxins to ward off harmful insects.
Increased gill surface area ensures many spores are produced, guaranteeing the survival of the species. Thicker spore walls provide protection, ensuring the spores grow on the surface they land on after transportation.
Are Coral Reefs Considered Fungi?
No, while some species of fungi are associated with corals, the latter are not fungi in any way. Coral reefs are structures found in large bodies of water. They form from skeletons of dead corals. Corals are marine invertebrates that use calcium carbonate in seawater to develop hard exoskeletons.
Corals behave just like fungi. They are found in many places in the world. Individual corals often live and thrive on their ancestors’ exoskeletons; this is known as the coral reef. The surviving corals add to the growing coral reef resulting in a massive marine feature over time.
The number of known species of coral is in the hundreds. The biggest are found in the waters in the tropical and subtropical regions. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral system.
Corals are not plants, rocks, or fungi. Unlike rocks, they are so much alive, and unlike plants, they don’t produce their own food. Corals are animals.
Some marine fungi develop on coral reefs. They can be categorized as decomposers, pathogens, endoliths, and endobionts. They play a role in carbonate alteration, density branding, microboring, and discoloration.
For example, endoliths bore into the carbonate structure of coral reefs. Decomposers help break down coral mucus.
The mycelial network is an information superhighway. It is the earth’s first internet through which different plant species communicate and talk to each other. Consequently, fungi play a vital role in the ecosystem. Plants pass nutrients and warning signals back and forth via mycelia and, in turn, treat the fungi to a constant supply of carbon.
There are various types of fungi, depending on the habitat they grow in. In excess numbers, fungi are harmful to the environment and people. They have a musky smell, cause rotting, and increase asthmatic attacks. Fungi also cause wooden objects and painted walls to lose their shine. However, if fungi are cultivated in a controlled environment, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. They have useful culinary, medicinal, and artistic applications.