Nature Nearby: The fungus among us

Fungus is one of the most mysterious organisms on the planet.

BY FRED SEITZ — The extensive rain in the past few months has raised the visibility of one of the most adaptive, diverse and mysterious organisms: fungus. A walk in the woods will reveal fungi from the familiar toadstools, to various shelf-type fungi on trees and logs, to some brilliant orange-colored tubular types along paths. Moisture is one of the key contributors to the growth of this unusual and still not well understood organism that some consider the dominant form of life on Earth.

Consider the extremely wide range that fungi inhabit — from tropics to poles, to say nothing of our homes and our bodies (don’t forget athlete’s foot). While the fruiting body of the fungus is the most frequently noticed part, the underground “wires,” or rhizomes, can be extensive in their length — even several miles long — and are vital to helping the fungus absorb nitrogen into its roots. Fungi diverged from other life forms over 1.5 billion years ago and preceded (some say helped) plants in colonizing land. Despite their early colonization of the continents, fungi were misunderstood by humans and were considered a type of plant. Now they are recognized as a separate kingdom and actually as more like animals than plants, having properties such as communication with other fungi and perhaps with other life forms.

The designation of fungi as its own kingdom has been facilitated by DNA analysis. The recognition that different fungi reproduce both asexually and sexually has also helped define their classification in a separate kingdom. Their original inclusion in the plant kingdom was attributed in part to their apparent lack of movement, but their spread by spores and a variety of insects and other animals helped distinguish them.

While their diversity and unusual lifestyle can make them seem both creepy and wondrous to their human co-inhabitants of the planet, they provide benefits that we should not dismiss. Our fungal friends give us edible toadstools, yeast to make bread and brews, and important medicines, such as penicillin and anti-cancer medication. For some, they also provide spiritual and mind-altering substances.  

However, some species of fungi can be very toxic, and even fatal, to humans. While some are important food for animals and insects, others are used in pesticides against insects. Fungi are a diverse and adaptable co-inhabitant. Some fungi even help decompose other fungi. Indeed, one of their most obvious and beneficial functions for humans is the major role that fungi play in breaking down debris (notice their busy work on fallen wood in the park). In recent years, we have also begun to recognize and make use of fungi’s ability to destroy toxic materials.

The understanding of fungi will require considerably more time and study by humans. While we study them, however, they may be studying us, their “intelligent” habitats, and expanding their own intelligence and dominance. One thing is for certain: The fungus among us – and persistently within and upon us – is here to stay, whether we fully understand it or not.