Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
The Kingdom of Fungi
Treasures from the kingdom of fungi.
2021 is going to be the year that I learn a lot about the kingdom of fungi. I have asked for the new book about fungi, Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake for Christmas. It seems that I am missing a huge chunk of natural history knowledge, that is the intricate life of fungi. Now that the walks through the woods are slower, spotting fungi has become a favourite thing to do. By November the fungi season is coming to a close but it is still possible to find a few and a new found fascination for lichens is adding to the search.
I cannot eat wild mushrooms, they make me very, very sick. Button mushrooms and chestnut mushrooms from the supermarket are fine, the rest are not. This ambiguity led me to question what a fungi actually is.
What are fungi?
I learnt that just like animals and plants are separated into their own kingdoms, so are fungi. The process of this separation to create the kingdom of fungi happened about a billion years ago. Howver dna analysis has shown that animals and fungi had a shared common ancestor. This throws up some very interesting facts that make fungi so useful to us. Both animals and fungi are susceptible to the same pathogens. When Alexander Fleming discovered the mold of the Penicillium genus, he had actually discovered an active agent in the mold capable of inhibiting staphylococci and other gram-positive pathogens. He named this active agent Penicillin.
Fruits of the fungi.
The most amazing thing is that we do not see the main part of the fungi, we only see the fruit of the organism when it cares to reveal itself. The body of the fungus is a mycelium, that is a web like feature that consists of filaments called hyphae. The mycelium lives in the ground or in trees or wherever the food source is. This mycelium can be tiny or vast, covering miles in its underground network.
We don’t notice it until it fruits and yet it is incredibly important to us in all sorts of ways. They are responsible for breaking down dead organisms. Their cell walls are made of chitin which is the tough fibrous substance that the plant kingdom does not make but is responsible for the hard exoskeletons of animals such as crabs. In order to feed itself the fungi has to absorb nutrients. The hyphae secrete acids and enzymes (apparently it is these enzymes that make me sick). These enzymes and acids break down the surrounding organic material into simple molecules the fungi can easily absorb.
They have evolved to feed off dead matter, living animals and plants. Some are called mycorrhizal fungi and they live in symbiosis with plants. This complex relationship in which fungi provide mineral nutrients to the plant in exchange for carbohydrates or other chemicals that the fungi cannot produce is mind blowing.
What else is there to discover from fungi?
So far it has been estimated that over 5 million species of fungi could exist worldwide. Some major work on dna sequencing has suggested this number could be even higher. It therefore seems to be quite astonishing that I should be able to name so few. The ones I can name are the ones I eat. shiitakes, oysters and button mushrooms are my limit. Out walking in the woods I have met many mushroom gatherers. These people have gathered mushrooms I haven’t even managed to see and if I did certainly wouldn’t pick and eat.
Drugs made from fungi go far beyond Penicillin. Some of the most effective drugs to prevent heart and other organ transplant rejection have been synthesized from fungi.
Scientists are starting to unravel what is described as the super highway of connectivity between fungi and trees. Read ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben and be prepared to enter your favourite woodland walk with new eyes.
In a similar way vegetable crops such as broad beans use fungal networks to pass on messages of a possible aphid attack. Possible because signals were picked up by plants not under direct attack themselves that caused them to activate a chemical defense. The work done by the University of Aberdeen in 2013 is startling in its implications.
It is estimated that up to 90% of all plants live in a mutually beneficial relationship with fungi. This fact alone means we should all take rather more notice and learn more about this incredible kingdom of the natural world.