At the bottom of almost everyone’s list are mushrooms, Rodney Dangerfields in the biotic world. They are detested by many who see them as unhygienic hangers-on that need to be eradicated with a deadly battery of fungicides, disinfectants and drugs.
But eradicating fungi from the world – even if it were possible – would be tantamount to signing our own death sentence, says Keith Seifert in his book “The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi: Exploring the Microscopic World in Our Forests, Homes, and Bodies.”
The retired Canadian mycologist (fungal scientist) has written an available primer on a highly reviled category of organisms whose lives sustain our own. Without fungi, forests could not grow, agriculture would stagnate, carbon could not be recycled. There would soon be no life at all.
Fungi, the author says, are the meek ones who have long since inherited the Earth. There can be 10 times more fungal species than all animals, plants and birds combined. (No one knows for sure, because most fungi have never been adequately studied.) Rob Dunn, an ecologist who contributed an engaging preface, suggests that we rename our current anthropocene era “Myocene” because “how large our human influence than it may be, it pales in comparison with that of the fungi. “
Yet even science came too late for their study, and mycology remains a relatively underfunded stalemate whose acolytes carry out their studies in basement laboratories far from the shining halls of the more prominent disciplines.
Like the scientists who study them, fungi thrive in even the smallest and most inhospitable niches, from the bottom of the ocean to the cracks in wooden floors. Fungal evolution differed from other living kingdoms 1.5 billion years ago, and fungi remain among our planet’s most resourceful survivors.
The reason why they are so indispensable is that fungi are the undertakers of nature, whose task is to dispose of the dead, return vital nutrients to the soil and ensure the continuity of life.
These natural recyclers are everywhere. Seifert tells us that there are about 2,000 miles of fungal hyphae – microscopic filaments much thinner than a human hair – in a single teaspoon of rich organic soil. Fungi live in our intestines and colonize our skin and hair follicles. These companions rarely pose threats to human life, the author assures us, although there are notable exceptions: the mold aspergillosis, which kills thousands of people a year due to hospital-acquired infections. Toxic fungi (fungi are fruiting bodies produced by certain fungi) contain deadly mycotoxins that deter feed walkers.
For the most part, however, fungi live in harmony with the ecosystems that they help keep in balance. But that balance is upset. With climate change, fungal tree diseases spread by bark beetles are destroying coniferous forests throughout North America. Sponge rust and dirt spreading in our increasingly hotter and wetter world endangers the world’s coffee supply. Seven out of the nine major crop diseases that threaten our food supply are fungi.
Despite their destructive potential, fungi have a generous ability to interact with other organisms. Their most well-known symbiotic partnership is with low, where algae produce food for fungi through photosynthesis, and the fungi knit the algae together into a complex organism whose main ecological function is to decompose stones to create new soil.
Less well known – until recently at least – are the large underground networks of mycelium in the forests, called “the woodwide web”, which connect trees with each other and facilitate the transfer of nutrients and information between them.
Plants rely on the fungi that live on their roots to help them absorb nutrients better, protect against pathogens and tolerate drought. Seifert says we need to leverage these talents. Instead of lacing up fields with nitrogen-based fertilizers to artificially stimulate plant growth, the author envisions a shift towards “bio-fertilizers” – fungal-rich inoculants that will help crops take nitrogen directly out of the air.
Fungi are also grown as meat substitutes, and their mycelial fibers have been used to make biodegradable packaging and building materials. These voracious microorganisms are used to clean up oil spills and radioactive waste and to decompose plastics. Bioprospectors are looking for new varieties of fungi in the wild that can help produce a new generation of drugs and psychoactive substances. (The hallucinogenic LSD was made from the ergot fungus that grows on wheat.)
The author credits these humble organisms with the ability to trigger a revolution in the way humans relate to nature. Technology is often seen as being contrary to the natural order. But the burgeoning field of “mycotechnology” points to a future where we will learn to work with the natural world instead of against it. “Look at the mushrooms. Learn from their ways,” Seifert urges.
The book is fact-heavy, but lacks the kind of entertaining anecdotes and peers that can make it easier to read. It also jumps from topic to topic without exploring anything in the great depth. These are less mistakes than the nature of the task that Seifert has set himself – to provide an encyclopedic overview of the area.
For the innately curious, “The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi” will be an eye-opening introduction to a secretive world that most of us know too little about.
Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist. His latest book is a collection of poems, “What the dust does not know. “
The hidden realm of mushrooms
Explore the microscopic world of our forests, homes and bodies
Gråsten. 280 pp. $ 27.95