by Janet Spencer
Fungi enter our lives in many different ways: the bread we eat; the yogurt and cheese we consume; the wine and beer we drink; the antibiotics we take for infections. Come along with Tidbits as we have fun with fungi!
A PERVASIVE PLANT
• It’s estimated that there are somewhere between 2.2 and 3.8 million species of fungi in the world, which is six to ten times more than the estimated number of plant species. It’s estimated that only about 6% of all fungal species have been discovered. To date, only about 135,000 have been named.
• The word “fungus” generally refers to a single species, but if you are speaking of many species, then “fungi” is the plural. Why? Because it’s Latin and that’s how they did it in Rome. The same does not hold true for “octopus” vs “octopi” because “octopus” is Greek, so the plural is “octopodes.”
• The fossil record shows that for 40 million years (20 times longer than humans have existed) the dominant life form was a fungus called Prototaxites which stood more than two stories tall, standing in a form reminiscent of today’s saguaro cactus. They died out when vascular plants began their ascent.
• About 90% of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi, which link them in shared networks sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.” The word “mycorrhizal” comes from the Greek word for fungus “mykes” plus the word for root “rhiza” from which we also get the word “rhizome.”
• The trees manufacture carbohydrate molecules through photosynthesis, which they share with the fungus living at their roots. The fungus is able to spread farther and faster than the tree roots, reaching water and nutrients which it delivers to the tree, in a symbiotic exchange.
• Many types of fungus can live on the roots of a single plant, and many plants can connect with a single fungal network.
• Not all strains of fungus are beneficial to plants, and there are many types that kill the tree or plant they infect.
FUNGI AS MEDICINE
• After Alexander Fleming discovered the mold that produces the wonder drug penicillin, the search was on for other kinds of molds that would also serve the purpose. Throughout World War II, pilots serving in the war effort were asked to scoop up vials of soil from where ever they landed, and return those vials to a lab in Peoria, Illinois, to be tested for possible molds. Another woman was given the job to visit the local markets in Peoria in order to gather whatever moldy fruits she could find there. She was the one who returned one day with a moldy cantaloupe. The mold that was on that melon was just as effective at killing bacteria as the original strain, but produced it in far greater quantities. Much of the penicillin produced today springs from that moldy melon.
• Historical records show that many cultures have known of the healing properties of certain molds, with evidence that moldy soybean curds, moldy cheese, and moldy bread were used in poultices to heal wounds.
• One type of medication used to treat migraine headaches is derived from a fungus called ergot, which lives on certain grains. In the past, ergot infestations caused hallucinations and death throughout entire populations when the fungus-infested grain was milled into bread. Ergot is also the original source of LSD. But when specific alkaloids are isolated from ergot, it’s an effective remedy for migraine.
• A strain of moldy fungus kills other fungi. Extracts from it are used to treat fungal infections such as ringworm and thrush.
• Yeasts are single-celled members of the fungal kingdom. If yeast is added to wheat, the result is leavened bread. If yeast is added to grape juice, the result is wine. Sake comes from rice which has been partially rotted by fungus, after which yeast is added to ferment it. Yeast plus partially germinated barley seeds results in beer.
• Mushrooms vary in protein content from 10% to 45%, but regardless of their protein level, they beat every other vegetable’s protein content. Only milk, eggs, and meat contain more protein than mushrooms.
• Half of all the mushrooms grown commercially in the U.S come from Chester County, PA. The industry began in 1886 when William Swayne decided to grow mushrooms there, because all of the horses that ran the public transportation in Philadelphia were stabled there, and mushrooms grow well on horse manure.
• One species of fungus discovered amidst mining waste is one of the most radiation-resistant organisms ever found. It’s even been found inside the reactor at Chernobyl.
• Some fungi capture and consume nematode worms in the soil. When plant matter becomes scarce, they release an attractant when nematodes are nearby. Some species deploy sticky nets or adhesive branches, while others produce nooses that inflate instantly when touched, ensnaring the victim. Oyster mushrooms commonly sold in supermarkets paralyze nematodes with a single toxic droplet on the tip of a root, giving the root enough time to digest the worm. Others release spores that “swim” through dirt, chemically drawn towards the scent of nematodes. They attach themselves to the body of the worm, and then sprout, sending fungus harpoons through the worm.
• One researcher put a rotten block of wood on a surface, allowing it to become infested with a rotten-wood loving fungus. The fungus put out root-like “feelers” called mycelium, which spread out in all directions like a fine white fuzzy circle. Then the researcher put another rotten block nearby. The moment the mycelium touched the new block, all of the mycelium on all other sides of the old block ceased their growth, while the growth quickly thickened where the mycelium touched the new block.
• Then the researcher did a follow-up experiment: as soon as the mycelium touched the second block, she removed the first block and scraped all of the mycelium off of it. When she replaced it, now with only undeveloped spores attached to it, the spores sprouted into new mycelium which reached out in the original direction of the newly placed block.