Fungal biodiversity is as far reaching as the darkest corners of our cosmos—as far as our forgotten memory of where we come from. To understand even the smallest fraction of what we have discovered within western science would mean to spend an entire lifetime studying and getting to know these elusive neighbors (even then, we would only be scratching the surface). To understand the profundity of our relationship with these beings we would need to venture back to the Late Ordovician era, where the symbiotic relation between the earliest plants (liverworts) and fungi created possibility for the continuation of life on land. Fungi were the first complex organisms that essentially mined stone for minerals, creating soil, thus allowing plants to migrate and diversify on land.
Like animals, fungi are heterotrophs, which signifies that they receive their nutrients through absorption and inherently rely on other organisms for these nutrients. Considering the genetic sequencing between flora, fauna and funga, we are more closely related to fungi than we are to plants. Thanks to yeast (unicellular fungi) we can make bread, cheese, beer, wine, chocolate, and many other delicacies found in the kitchen! Unicellular fungi are solely yeasts, while all other filamentous fungi are multicellular organisms. Filamentous fungi have hyphae which are fungal cells that branch out and create a web of threads that form into mycelia. This mycelia is considered to be the underground “internet” of forests where nutrients, water and information are exchanged.
Mycelial diversity within a forest is paramount for the survival of endemic species to their native ecosystems. Mycelium spreads throughout the tops of tree roots, absorbing the sugars and giving back vital minerals. This symbiotic relationship is known as a mycorrhizal network. The health of a forest is incredibly reliant on these mycorrhizal networks, especially in times of danger. There are many species of fungi identified in their support & facilitation of tree resilience to environmental stressors (toxins, predators and pathogenic microbes). Trees are known to be the oldest living organisms on earth, without the underground support from their fungal kin trees wouldn’t be able to store carbon in their trunks and create oxygen.
The Fungi Queendom is seemingly the most expansive on earth yet only about 5-10 % of fungal diversity is known. This gives perspective of just how small our understanding of their magnitude is. Now more than ever there is a global necessity for the network of citizen mycologists to continue to expand and share what we find. To understand the myriad of interconnected and coregulatory relationships that fungi are the catalysts of means that we need to take initiative. Documenting and sharing the species that we find in our backyard, on a tree in the park or in the middle of an old growth forest is imperative for us to continue to discover new species and understand their intricate relationship to the ecosystems in which they interact.
We rely on them, as we always have and as we always will, in ways beyond comprehension.
Perhaps now more than ever we must tune into their processes and wisdom, as we contemplate these fleeting (yet always present) seekers of light and dark.