“I hope more people will become curious about our microscopic neighbors – or at least less suspicious or fearful of them. Fungi are among our closest relatives, and we are already deeply embedded with them. We should work with them a lot more than we do now … Most of the life-forms around us were here long before we arrived and will remain long after we are gone. Let’s learn what we can from them and hope for a long, rich journey together.”

The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi: Exploring the Microscopic World in our Forests, Homes and Bodies by Keith Seifert provides a comprehensive overview of fungi - what they are, how they operate, where they are found, and how we could benefit from them in future.

What are they?

Seifert describes fungi as a “three-dimensional, tangled pot of pasta called mycelium … And rather than being restricted by the need to maintain an organized structure like the body of an animal or a plant, your mycelium exists as a colony. This is a free-form pastiche of connected bits and pieces that is as close as many microfungi get to organizing their mycelium.” The individual strands of hyphae can poke their way into tiny spaces, weave together in different patterns, or connect into larger networks.

But hyphae move slowly. If fungi want to spread more quickly, they release spores that “contain complete sets of genes wound into chromosomes encased in cells, each like a message in a bottle containing instructions to make a new colony.”

Fungi often link up with other organisms in a mutually beneficial arrangement. For example, 20% of fungi live only as part of lichen. They provide the structure, while algal cells harvest energy from sunlight. Bacteria provide additional resources by capturing nitrogen gas to assemble amino acids and proteins.

Where are they found?

Fungi are everywhere. We enjoy bread, beer, and wine thanks to yeast, a form of fungi. Fungi are hard at work in forests, breaking down dead wood or leaves. There are fungi in our homes and on the surface of our skin, from a hazy dust of spores and brown specks on our houseplants to dandruff yeasts that coat our skin. Small colonies are usually harmless and play a role in strengthening our immune systems. On our scalp, they appear to prevent our skin from drying out and discourage infectious microbes.

How can we benefit from fungi in future?

Keith Seifert believes we are negligent in not benefitting more fully from fungi. We already benefit from mushrooms as food. Antibiotics such as penicillin and streptomycin are derived from fungi, and fungi are used in a variety of industrial processes, including the production of ‘stone-washed’ jeans. But there is so much more that is possible - from composting the sometimes toxic debris from coffee cultivation to producing leather-like fabric and moldable components of vehicles or electronics.

Seifert says, “four characteristics of fungi make them particularly attractive collaborators, spawning possibilities for new mycotechnologies … their fibrous nature means they can be reoriented into durable threads, flexible textiles, or spongy bundles [building materials, textiles] … fungi make bucketloads of metabolites that affect other living cells … what new classes of drugs might arise from fungal metabolites? Can other metabolites replace by-products of the fossil fuel industry? … fungi are great decomposers … Can fungi be used to degrade plastics and reduce the footprint of landfills, or to address pollution caused by accidental spills … Finally, fungi have a great track record as creative collaborators … Can foresters and farmers better use endophytes and mycorrhizae to reduce plant disease, protect against invasive species, and reduce pesticide and fertilizer use?”

“We need to embrace biological complexity if we are going to be wise stewards of our world. The health of our microbes is our physical and mental health; their genes are our genes. They are part of our inheritance from our parents, partners, children, houses, foods, and everywhere we’ve ever been. If we are going to make peace with fungi, we need to be aware of their biodiversity and embrace their talents for biodegradation, symbiosis, and biochemistry that make them such significant players in the environment. Only then will we be able to work with them effectively for our own prosperity and health, while they also collaborate with us.”

See Also

Lichens: Tough and Sensitive, EcoFriendly West

All About Fungi, EcoFriendly Sask

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/41742560224

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