An Ode to Fungi

Whether they’re adding protein to your favourite risotto or adorning woodland fairy tales, mushrooms are pretty magical. In recent years, scientists have been swooning over their ability to degrade contaminants in the environment. As crazy as it sounds, some researchers have even taken a shine to the idea of using glowing fungi as sustainable light sources.

Mushroomy. Image credit: Kalle Gustafsson via Flickr.

Nourishing the Soil               

Fungi are an incredibly important part of the soil food web, nourishing other living things that call the soil home. Plants can’t use leaf litter directly because fallen leaves are too tough to break down and digest. This is where fungi come in and lend a helping hand. Mycelium, in particular, knows a thing or two about breaking down leaf litter. This is the vegetative part of fungi, the tiny white threads often seen growing out from dead wood and leaves. The mycelium releases powerful enzymes and acids which break down cellulose and lignin, the two main parts of plant fibre. As the fungus breaks down leaves and wood, a rich substance called humus forms. A myriad of living things feast upon the different substrates present, with nutrients in the soil aiding the degradation process.

Cleaning the Earth

Microorganisms can be used to decontaminate water and soil from pollutants, in a process called bioremediation. Mycoremediation is an especially clever way of using mushrooms to remove waste from the environment. When it comes to cleaning up contaminated land, white rot fungi are absolute dream boats. They’re excellent at breaking down a range of organic molecules because they release enzymes which can modify lignin, an important part of plant fibre. These enzymes have a ‘low substrate-specificity’ meaning they can act on a range of molecules that are pretty similar to lignin. Adding carbon sources such as corn cob, sawdust and straw to polluted sites can help improve the degradation process.

Fungal bioluminescence. Image credit: Florian Rohart via Flickr

Lighting the Night

A dreamy array of mushrooms are also bioluminescent. In other words, they’re able to create and emit light. Native to Brazil, Neonothopanus gardneri is an impressive glowing fungus which grows at the base of palm trees. Researchers at the São Paulo University explored the purpose of bioluminescence in these eerie fungi. The cunning team created plastic mushrooms illuminated by green LED lights to study insect behaviour. The mushrooms only glowed at night and attracted a wide range of bugs, flies, wasps and ants. But what use is this to our fungus friends? Well, researchers think that by attracting insects, fungi are better able to spread their spores far and wide. This is particularly useful to mushrooms which grow under the forest canopy, where wind flow is not as strong. Pretty neat!

Fungi are inspiring medical researchers, designers and engineers left, right and centre. To find out more about their medicinal uses, mushroom bricks and disaster relief, take a peek at National Geographic’s video below.

7 Responses to “An Ode to Fungi”

  1. August says:

    I also recommend everyone to check out our subject’s very own fungi photographer, Lachy, on his amazing instagram!
    (again shamelessly promoting my friend)

  2. Ashley says:

    Thank you, August! Fun fact: the light created by some species of fungi is actually called foxfire. It’s usually pretty dim but can sometimes be bright enough to read by.

    Oh and thanks for sharing your friends artwork! The way they blend human anatomy with nature is unsettling yet fascinating.

  3. Ashley says:

    Thanks for your kind response! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Searching for imagery was delightful because there were so many gorgeous photos to choose from. If you’d like more, you should check out this incredible collection:

  4. Ashley says:

    Thanks heaps, Maja! It’d be so magical to see bioluminescent fungi in nature one day. Omphalotus nidiformis is probably Australia’s best known glowing mushroom. Interestingly, they have their own circadian rhythm so they don’t glow during daylight hours.

  5. kcurrey says:

    Great article. Most people think fungi are ugly and boring, but so it’s great how you’ve shown their fabulous and fascinating side. Beautiful images too.

  6. Maja Dunstan says:

    Those glow in the dark mushrooms are the coolest thing! Really interesting post.

  7. August says:

    Well written Ashley! Using fungi as a light source is an incredible idea, I’ll take that over artificial lighting any day.

    I also think the eerie, freakish nature of fungi has left remarkable imprints on human culture. For example they can be intimately connected to art, such as in the works of this amazing Melbourne artist: (yes, I’m shamelessly promoting for my friend!)