Fungus among us

“I found a really weird mushroom!” is an announcement heard almost daily during Jemicy’s late fall recesses. Salamanders and frogs have buried themselves in the stream mud for the winter, buckeyes are long since collected by kids or squirrels, and foliage no longer obscures the surfaces and crannies of logs.

There are certain seasons when a “weird mushroom” can mean an edible morel or chicken-of-the-woods that I will likely spirit away to savor at home, but in mid-November, it is something to be wondered at, photographed, used for a spore print, or simply observed.

In the classroom we recently studied fungi firsthand by dissecting mushrooms, experimenting with growing different food molds, and testing yeast’s carbon dioxide production.

The idea that fungi are heterotrophs like us, unable to make their own food through photosynthesis but rather silently gaining nutrients from the environment (which includes other living and formerly living organisms) can make them seem almost insidious. And indeed, the largest living thing recorded is a fungus living in Oregon (Armillaria solidipes) whose mycelium extends for 9.6 square kilometers. It was discovered when scientists went searching for the cause of a large tree die-off and found that the hyphae throughout the area all belonged to the same genetically distinct organism. A truly humongous fungus.

Like the plant blindness that afflicts so many humans living in the industrialized world, fungi are often overlooked, but even more common, it seems, is a reaction of disgust. This may be due to the fact that many fungi are decomposers, and we associate them with decay and potentially deadly toxins if ingested. We also usually notice only the mushrooms – not the primary organism but only its fruiting bodies – which produce spores for reproduction. Fear of poisoning by contact or even proximity prevents many from appreciating the diversity, complexity, and beauty of these organisms, not to mention the unseen but critical role that so many perform in aiding nutrient uptake by plant roots.

As my seventh grade classes were wrapping up our study of fungi, we watched two TED talks that highlighted new perspectives on fungi. The first, by Paul Stamets, described ways that fungi could, in his words, save the world through bioremediation and fighting disease, among other benefits. The second linked our class’s initial study of trees to fungi as Suzanne Simard discussed her experiments with plant communication through an underground fungal network.  Both talks kept the class spellbound. I recommend them as one more way to fully appreciate the fungus among us.