Fungi may hold the key to reversing what we’ve broken, but we only know about a tiny fraction of all the biodiversity and magic of this kingdom. They are plants’ best friends, they heal us, they are responsible for numerous scrumptious foods, and they make sustainable biomaterials. We owe them life as we know it and we could not exist without them. On this #EarthDay we chose ten reasons why fungi are crucial for life on the planet.
April 22, 2023
Historically overlooked and dismissed, fungi are, in fact, one of Earth’s hardest workers. We owe them life as we know it and we could not exist without them. Do you know why? Here are ten reasons:
Fungi break down compounds and turn them into nutrients available to enable the regeneration of life. Without fungi, the world would be covered in layers and layers of dead plants, animals, and almost everything you can imagine. Fungi make things rot, generating space and nutrients for everything else to live.
Watch the short “Let Things Rot” to dive deeper into the fungi kingdom and the importance of allowing natural cycles of degeneration to unfold.
Mycorrhizal fungi are a type of fungi that grow in the soil and plant roots, forming complex networks under our feet. Most plants depend on symbiotic associations with this kind of fungi which entangle themselves through the soil and roots providing plants with crucial nutrients and helping defend them from disease, drought, and a wide range of stresses. In return, plants supply the fungus with sugars and more since fungi don’t photosynthesize.
Do you like wine, bread, chocolate, beer, and soy sauce? Say thanks to the fungi! Yeasts are single-cell fungi with an enormous impact on food and beverage production since centuries ago. Through the process of fermentation, yeasts generate carbon dioxide and alcohol. This metabolic activity is the key to dough leavening and multiple cereals, grains, and fruits brewing. Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the most popular representative of yeasts involved in fermentation by making beer. Another fungal species that adds unique flavoring to food is Penicillium roqueforti, which contributes to the peculiar taste of the world-renowned blue cheese.
Fungi are found in the guts of sheep, cattle and goats, as well as in many other ruminant and nonruminant wild herbivores. These types of fungi aid them in their digestion because high-fiber foods are challenging to break down without them.
Mycorrhizal fungi -which grow in symbiosis with plant roots- are a major global carbon sink. Ecosystems with plants that integrate carbon into the underground fungal networks store an estimated eight times more carbon compared to ecosystems with non-mycorrhizal vegetation. Underground fungi sequester carbon, feed on it and grow into immense and expanding networks that act as true nutrient highways. The carbon stored underground also makes the soil richer and more stable, protecting it from erosion.
How many times were you prescribed antibiotics? And how many of those times was that antibiotic penicillin? Probably, your answer is “a lot.” Our beloved penicillin is obtained from a fungus of the genus Penicillium and was first used by our ancestors many hundreds of years ago. Later, its mainstream use was triggered by the work of Alexander Fleming in 1928. Fleming accidentally encountered penicillin when a few of his culture dishes got contaminated with mold. What had been considered “a nuisance” until that moment, was one of the most remarkable medical events in recent history.
Did you know that mycelium, the non-visible part of fungi that grows into a substrate, can be turned into packaging, shoes, a purse, or building blocks? Fungal cells secrete enzymes that break down the materials around them in order to reuptake the nutrients and grow. They essentially “glue” what is left of the substrate together, binding it into a myco-material structure as it develops. The final result can resemble various materials like foam, rubber, cork, or leather.
With the incredible malleability of mycelium and increasing technological knowledge and capability, there are immense possibilities for using myco-materials, which are durable, compostable, and sustainable.
Do you want to know more about this process? Ecovative is a company developing many different biomaterial applications of fungi.
Fungi and humanity have culturally co-evolved together, and our ancestors have used mushrooms for thousands of years. Conks were used to carry fire from one place to another, while reishi has been part of Chinese traditional medicine since at least the 5th century. Have you ever seen a giant puffball? They grow on grasslands in different parts of the world and are edible when young. When they mature, the spores are medicinal, and once aged and sporulated, the sterile base on which they’ve been held is used as tinder. That means one single species can feed you, heal you, and help you start a fire. Imagine how many fungal properties are still waiting to be unveiled!
Watch the short documentary “Fungal Elders” to learn more about the relationship between fungi and humans.
In a world where mental health awareness has taken on greater importance in society, fungi amaze us once again. Psilocybin is a well-known psychedelic compound present in over 100 species of mushrooms. Although psilocybin was demonized and marginalized during the 60’s, as it turns out, it was not all about recreational tripping. Many scientific studies indicate that psilocybin is a game changer for people suffering from major depression, anxiety, addictions, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The administration of psilocybin in conjunction with psychotherapy has shown a significant improvement for people experiencing these conditions, including long-term effects and cases of remission.
Did you know some organisms are fungivorous? That means they eat mushrooms and/or lichens. This behavior has been seen in birds, insects, and mammals, among others. At least 22 primate species eat mushrooms, including Goeldi’s monkey (Callimico goeldii), a small South American primate. They spend up to 63% of their feeding time foraging and eating fungi! The relationship between animals and fungi also benefits the latter, providing another mechanism for dispersing spores. Protecting fungi means protecting the food web of other species.
Estimated fungal biodiversity vastly exceeds the number of species we currently know. With this in mind, we can imagine a world of possibilities! The Fungi Foundation has worked for the fungi for more than ten years, being the first NGO dedicated exclusively to protecting this kingdom. They facilitate the exploration, discovery, documentation, and conservation of fungi to increase knowledge of their diversity, promote innovative solutions to contingent problems, educate about their existence and applications, and recommend public policy for their conservation.
The discovery of wide genetic variety in fungal species previously thought to belong to the same evolutionary lineages, termed “cryptic species' ', has prompted scientists to re-visit traditional scientific naming systems and call for more research into fungi taxonomy. But what is the best way to reconcile traditional scientific naming systems with new methods of species identification?
Paul Stamets’ work of 40+ years as a mycologist inspired the character of Lieutenant Stamets in the “Star Trek: Discovery” series, made him the protagonist of the documentary Fantastic Fungi and has now been immortalized with the species Psilocybe stametsii (Dentinger & Furci, 2023).