Science | Geography | Design & Technology

Experts reveal mind-boggling power of fungi

Chanterelle Waxy Cap (Hygrocybe cantharellus), detail of a photograph by Phyllis Ma

Do mushrooms rule the world? The largest living organism on our planet lives under a forest in Oregon. It glows eerily in the dark, and scientists believe it’s about 2,500 years old. A huge organism is growing beneath your feet. Every second, it tangles further into the soil, building an extraordinary invisible web.  Fungi are all around us. They live in our bodies and in the soil that we step on.  There are up to 3.8 million different species of fungi – but few people know anything about them. Here are just ten of the fungi’s astonishing abilities:  1. Treat depression. New research shows that psilocybin, a drug found in some mushrooms, can help open up the brains of people with severe depression.  2. And other ailments… Today, fungi are used in antibiotics, anti-cancer compounds and immune-suppressing drugs for organ transplants.  3. Human hosts. The fungi in your body cannot live without you. But scientists point out that you cannot live without them either.  4. Zombie makers. One fungus in the Amazon has a sinister survival technique. It takes over the body of ants, forcing them to climb plant stems before using their bodies to grow more spores.  5. Immortal spores. In 2021, researchers grew a mushroom from spores found 2.5 kilometres under the Pacific seafloor. 6. Garbage disposal. Fungi help decompose dead plant matter and release the nutrients inside.  7. Wood wide web. Threads of hyphae weave together in the soil, connecting the roots of plants in a web called a mycelium. Plants use this web to share nutrients and even information about threats. 8. Build the world. Today, people are making ethical mushroom “leather” and planning skyscrapers built on mycelium instead of concrete.  9. Save the planet. Scientists have discovered fungi that can break down plastics, clean up oil spills and maybe even neutralise nuclear waste.  10. Drive evolution. Fungal networks helped plants move from the water’s edge to the land. They turned the planet green forever.  Do mushrooms rule the world? Mushroom magic Yes: Every creature on the land depends on fungi. Without fungi, there would be no plants, no agriculture, no bread, no chocolate and no people. As one biologist says, “fungi are running the world”.  No: In the battle of the species, it is inevitably humans that come out on top. We have conquered the land, built huge cities and made amazing discoveries. Now, some fungi are even threatened by humans. Or… Fungi do not set out for world domination. In reality, they connect the world. Without fungal networks, cooperation between species on such a massive scale would not be possible.    KeywordsMushrooms - Mushrooms and toadstools are just the fruiting parts of a much larger organism. 

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