Mycelium – The magic of Mushrooms

Have you ever looked in your fridge only ro find mould on bread, or that the strawberries have gone soft and mushy? 

Yes, it’s happened to me too.  Did you ever wonder what was really happening to your food in the fridge? Join me for a meandre into the magical world of mushrooms.

What you have seen in your fridge  are white or cream coloured fibre’s that are called hyphae, but the vegetive structure is called mycelium. The fruiting body of mycelium, is something we will be more familiar with, mushrooms.

Mycelium is fascinating, its was on earth way before humans, or indeed, any land life form, so to find out more about Mycelium, we need to take a journey back in time, so grab yourself a cup of tea, as we need to travel back in time for a few billion years!

We’ve arrived at a time on Earth, when single celled organisms had been in our oceans for a long time already, but the land is still a rocky mass – with no life.  Around this time, bacteria were developing the ability to use the sun for photosynthesis, a process of converting sunlight into nutrients. The by-product of photosynthesis is oxygen, which the bacteria released into the atmosphere, allowing for more complex life to form. This is known as the “Cambrian Explosion”. 

Now, let’s take a quick jump forwards Sixty million years. More complex life forms have now developed on land, in the shape of fungi. They have the unique ability to eat rock! OK, to say Fungi could ‘eat’ rock may have been a slight exaggeration, what the fungi actually did, was to secrete a digestive enzyme, that gave them access to the nutrients in the rock, nutrients not available to any other organism at that time. Before this, I’m told, Fungi fed on the build-up of bacteria on the sea shore for millions of years as there was nothing else to eat on the land.

Overtime, the oxygen released by mycelium encouraged the development of other life forms. Plants began to grow and phot synthesise energy from the sun. Small plants, such as Liverworts etsablished themselves but they needed nutrients and minerals to spread ever wider. Mycelium, needed energy, so both had access to the needs of the other. So began, nature’s first mutually beneficial partnership, or what we know as symbiosis.

Nature works symbiotically, or in natural harmony.  As plants died, the fungi decomposed the dead plant material into nutrients and returned those nutrients to other plants. Plants provided the mycelium inderground with the energy they photo synthesised from the sun. as more plants began to grow, they released even more oxygen into the atmosphere. This symbiosis continues today. Mycorrhiza networks continue to evolve, with Scientists claiming the these networks benefit up to 90% of plant growth in the modern world. 

OK, so lets get back to 2020. Plants and fungus have a long term symbiotic relationship, that’s been so successful, that plants and fungi have colonised in every area of the world. Scientists have found them in Antartica, and Mycorrhizal networks have even been discovered at Chernobyl and Hiroshima, having survived nuclear explosions.

I first heard of Mychorrizal networks as a child. One day, whilst walking in my local woodland I saw a young sapling, it was shaded by many other, much larger trees, and I thought, How can that young sapling ever grow enough to become a big tree and keep the woodland growing into the future? What I didn’t understand then, lead me on a journey of discovery and a passion to live in harmony with the natural world. 

As I discovered more about nature, I learnt about fungi’s mycorrhizal network, and how, it steps in to feed the smaller trees, with the nutrients they need, and keeps supporting them, until the trees are strong enough to survive and become the future of that woodland. For me, that nurturing and care, that helps every living thing to grow and be part of a symbiotic and diverse eco-system, is a way of living that leaves only the softest of touches on our planet. Today, Mycorrhizal networks are everywhere, not just in woodlands and gardens.

Mycorrhizal networks also act as communication networks, sending signals to trees and plants, that warn of potential dangers, in the form of pests and disease, and, the Mycorrhizal networks pass on chemicals that deter or hinder the growth of competing plants by depriving them of nutrients. Mycelium is a cornerstone of our ecosystem, forging relationships with other organisms, including us humans, in our modern world.  For us, it’s an important food source, providing us vegetables, fruit and the yeast we need for bread, it’s used in many medicines, agriculture and as a leather substitute in vegan friendly clothing.

Mycelia reproduction happens when a spore germinates to form a type, known as homokaryotic mycelia. When two monokaryons come in contact with each other, and if conditions are right, the hyphal walls break open, in a process known as hyphal anastomoses. This allows for the nuclei of one monokaryon to move into the mycelia of the other. As the mycelium continue growing and spreading inside, or on the surface of the substrate, it absorbs nutrients that are then transported to support the reproduction in the fruiting bodies, this is what we know as mushrooms.

Mushrooms, like plants need external stimuli to develop, but it’s the mycelium that grow in ever expanding circles under the soil. As the mycelia deplete the nutrients in the inner part of the circle, they die, leaving an empty central area, whilst the younger mycelia, continue to develop a never ending cycle of new circles.

Mycelia release different types of enzymes in their environment to break down materials into simpler material forms that they can easily absorb. For example, complex sugars and proteins are broken down to their basic forms, glucose and amino acids. Mycelia will naturally grow towards water or areas with high moisture concentration to absorb water they need for sustained development. In this way, mycelium can spread anywhere there is soil with sufficient nutrients to support its continued growth.

Mycelium in the Ecosystem

Fungi play a vital role in our ecosystems. This is because of their ability to recycle nutrients through decomposition, and then make the nutrients available to other plants. 

There are many species of Fungi that do their work in different ways. Most can be classified in one of three groups; parasitic, saprophytic, or mycorrhizal. Parasitic fungi as the name implies, require a living host to consume. This can lead to the eventual death of plant or tree. Saprophytic fungi live on dead organic matter. They recycle nutrients from the dead organic matter through decomposition. Some fungi can be both, parasitic or saprophytic. The cultivated mushrooms you find in supermarkets are saprophytic species.

For me though, it’s the mycorrhizal fungi that really demonstrates the magic of mycelium. Mycorrhizae in latin means; “myco”-fungi and “rhiza”-root. This relates roughly as “Fungus root”, a description that dates back to the 19th century.

Mycelium in the modern world: Climate Change

Can mycelium help save the planet from the modern world? Well, yes it can. Mycelium acts as a carbon storage facility and will reinvest the carbon into plants. This relationship is so prevalent that scientists believe 92% of all plants form a mycorrhizal relationship in the soil. Woodlands are one way of offsetting carbon from the climate as they act as natural carbon sinks.

Britain was once a gigantic forest. Now, tragically, it is the country with the least woodland in Europe. This will be a massive factor in how we deal with climate change in the future. The UK government has already stated that we need double our woodland areas to achieve the goal of being carbon zero by 2050. It is believed that this will be achieved by returning farmland to woodlands.

Mycelium and people Our relationship with mycelium

Mycorrhizal networks play a vital role, in fact, life as we know it would not be possible without Mycelium networks. We utilise Mycelium to develop higher growth rates in cereal crops, vegetables and fruit, to enable seeds of plants to germinate faster and more reliably, and also for those seeds to be stronger and more resistant to pests and diseases. As well as providing reliable, strong crops that do not need fertilisers and spraying with chemicals, the use of mycorrhizal fungi in soil, improves the transfer of water, the trapping of carbon and nitrogen that helps to reduce the build up and impact of climate change on our planet.

With so many species of fungi still to be discovered, the possibilities of mycelium and its natural networks and symbiotic relations to benefit the natural world we live in appear endless. These tiny, fibrous lifeforms that can be found in your own garden, but have survived for billions of years, even through nuclear explosions must surely have a key role to play in the future of our planet.

So next time your walking in your local woodland or park and you see some mushrooms, stop and appreciate these incredible gifts of nature. Mushrooms really are Magic.

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