Both inert and anthropomorphic, from your favorite cuisines to countless iterations across popular culture, something about toadstools and chaparrals and shiitakes holds an appeal beyond being simply delicious. Mushrooms are prevalent across countless cultures in both art and cuisine — some savory, some deadly, and some that taste remarkably like chicken. However, there’s much more to mushrooms than meets the eye, both in a literal physical sense an in a deeper mysterious role within the natural kingdom.
The classical phylogeny of kingdoms is one that most remember, at least vaguely, from their time in high school biology. The five major kingdoms comprise plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and archaea. Though the tree of life is often amended in light of recent discoveries, these major classifications are rooted in old systems preceding the advent of molecular biology. As such, our classification systems reflect an earlier approach to distinguish life by its appearance, rather than genetic study. One of the more interesting revelations of phylogenetics came with the knowledge that animals and fungi share a common ancestor that branched off from plants some billions of years into our evolution. What this means is that although your favorite mushroom may bear a closer resemblance to broccoli, fungi are in fact more closely related to your cousin Daniel.
Spores of the living dead
Unlike your cousin, however, fungi have some strange and terrifying abilities. One particular species in the Brazilian rain forest penetrates the nervous system of carpenter ants and compels them to uncharacteristic locomotion and consumption before exploding from within to release their spores onto other unsuspecting members of the ant colony. It turns out that you don’t even have to leave Earth to encounter body snatchers.
Upon reflection of a slightly less terrifying mental image, in thinking of mushrooms you might conjure a scene of toadstools adorning a root or a tree trunk in the forest. Though iconic, the visible portion of mushrooms that we recognize is only a small portion of the anatomy of fungus known as the fruiting body. These outer structures are used to spread spores for reproduction, but they are connected to a much larger branching network of tissues called the mycelium, which extend underground. One particular species of Armillaria commands the spot of largest organism in the world with a homogeneous network of mycelium spanning 3.7 square miles and an age between 2,000-8,500 years.
Whispers of Mother Earth
Fungi comprise a diverse kingdom of species, some highly toxic and others savory and delicious. In the natural world, they play a variety of roles and can sometimes be deadly for natural vegetation. However, certain fungi, like many living things, show astonishing examples of symbiosis between their hosts and surroundings. The symbiosis between plants and fungi, referred to as mycorrhiza, have been well-observed since the 19th century, describing mutualism that helps plants absorb nutrients, resist disease, and colonize soil, but there’s also a more fascinating function that these relationships might inspire.
Fungal networks have been long known to span between plants across large distances. Recent studies have shown that these networks drive nutrient and carbon transfer between plants that serve as both a form of mutualistic exchange and even a method of communication. By sending nutrients to young saplings through mycorrhiza, fungi help trees maintain the viability of their saplings. It’s possible that plants can also release chemical signaling through these networks to send signals to other plants of changes in the environment that could prompt distress responses or signals of fruitful circumstances. In a 2008 Ted Talk, Paul Stamets referred to these networks as the Earth’s Natural Internet.