The Amazing Facets of Fungi

November 30, 2016

By Blair Wojcik

When it comes to connecting with the soil, mushrooms are king. And the kingdom they reside in is truly unique and extraordinary. Though distinct from both plants and animals (more similar to humans, actually — fungi breathe oxygen!), they provide countless services to many creatures. In fact, there are some who believe that mushrooms can help save the world.

Fungi have been around for a very long time, over 1,500 million years, and have been a primary component in the evolution of life itself. Without their support, the landscape we know today could not have been created. Why is this? The beauty of fungi lies in the symbiotic relationships they create within the ecosystem. Their presence is truly a foundational must for life on Earth to thrive and they are critical to the health and growth of plant matter, as well as its eventual decomposition. Luckily for us, they are everywhere!

90-95% of all plants have developed relationships with certain kinds of fungi in the soil, known as mycorrhizal fungi. These mycorrhizal fungi are important because they help trade nutrients with multiple plants simultaneously. Fungi can help forge an entire neighborhood of plants that share carbohydrates, water, minerals and other precious necessities, which can even extend to other surrounding networks and neighborhoods as well. Consider fungi the greatest social networker of all time. And when plants have mycorrhizal fungi attached to them, crops tend to have higher yields. The fungal network itself contains hyphae, or rootlike threads, that extend through the soil to increase the efficiency of the plant’s root system, releasing enzymes that mine for minerals and help access more water. In return, the plants, through photosynthesis, provide carbohydrates to the fungi. Community, generosity and abundance at its finest.

Fungi also participate in an important process called bioremediation, which is the ability to break down toxic compounds in our water and soil such as oil, dioxins, PCBs (manufactured chemicals) and nerve gas toxins. They can even isolate and remove contaminants in our environment, and some are even capable of absorbing heavy metals! Incredible! With the help of fungi, we can start to decompose some pretty harsh stuff found in soil today and recompose its structure with carbon, minerals and moisture to improve soil health, plant health, Earth health and human health. Truly, they are able to do things that we can only dream of.

The importance of coming to understand our planet and its complexities is vital for us to live in harmony with the elements. It is estimated that we only know 5-10% of the many species of fungi in the world, and even less about their individual functions. Still, we strive to learn more. We are all interconnected, including every speck and spore. What a blessing to have these guys supporting our wellbeing. We invite you to explore how to support theirs, too.

Check out some of mycologist Paul Stamets’ fascinating discoveries on mushrooms and mycoremediation here: http://www.fungi.com/about-paul-stamets.html

The best way for us to learn, is to get involved. Take a leap into this fascinating kingdom and get to know your Fungi.

READ: Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets or Radical Mycology by Peter McCoy

WATCH: TED talks with Paul Stamets or Suzanne Simard

EXPLORE: Stroll through your nearest forest or National Park to find Fungi up-close (but please be gentle & leave them be; they’re hard at work, after all.)

SUPPORT: Take a stand for soil and fungi preservation by reaching out to organizations you trust, to see how you can help.