The amazing life of fungi

Nina van Rijn

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4 minutes

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Knowledge

They’re not animals, they’re not plants. They are an entire kingdom of their own. Fungi. Together, these visible and underground fungi perform some impressive tasks. We listed some of the most remarkable facts about fungi.

February 22, 2022
Image: 
Ali Bakhtiari

They’re not animals, they’re not plants. They are an entire kingdom of their own. Fungi. Mushrooms are the most well known fungi. And with good reason. They fascinate us with their great taste, beautiful appearance, poisonous nature or hallucinating characteristics. But the largest body of fungus are hidden to our human eyes: it’s the underground networks of mycelium.

Together, these visible and underground fungi perform some impressive tasks. We listed some of the most remarkable facts about fungi.

Fungi are vital to our soil’s ability to capture carbon

Underground, fungi grow things that look quite similar to roots. These fungi roots are called hyphae, and they play a key role in fungi’s ability to store carbon in the ground.

This ability to store carbon is a result of the symbiotic relationship fungi have with trees and plants. The fungi strengthen the CO2 removal activities from their host plants and trees, and subsequently use the CO2 that is captured to build the network of hyphae (also called: mycelium) that extends into the ground. This way, the carbon is stored.

Fungi are closer to animals than to plants

Before 1969, fungi were scientifically categorised as plants. But whereas plants are capable of photosynthesis and can make their own food, fungi are not. Fungi absorb nutrients from other organic substances. Just like animals. Fungi also have so-called chitin: a fibrous substance that makes up cell walls, just like insects, shellfish and spiders do. Plants don’t have chitin.

But well, we can all agree that fungi are not animals either. That’s why scientist Whittaker proposed a new classification of livings things, in which fungi became a kingdom of their own. Besides the animal kingdom, plant kingdom, the monera kingdom of all microscopic living things such as bacteria, and the protista kingdom (that contains all other living things, such as algae and amoebae).

You eat fungi more often than you think

Mushrooms are the most well known edible fungi. They come in many different shapes, structures and tastes. Think of shiitake, oyster mushrooms, chanterelles and portobello’s. But also when you’re eating Roquefort and Camembert cheese, tempeh, soy sauce, salami, and beer and bread (yeast is also a fungus), you are eating fungi.

Fungi can break down plastic

In 2017, a fungus was discovered growing in a landfill in Pakistan, that can accelerate the breakdown process of plastic. Researchers found that this fungus secretes enzymes that help degrade the plastic.

Fungi are the telephone wires of the forest

Trees use mycelium networks to communicate with one another. These fungi form a relationship with tree roots and create a giant web underground, connecting one tree to the other. Trees use this network to warn each other about drought and disease, but also to pass nutrients from one place to another in order to help smaller trees grow.

Without fungi, we would have no plants

When plants first evolved from freshwater algae, they did not have roots. In fact, it took plants 50 million years of evolution before they made roots. In the meantime, fungi helped out: fungal networks gathered nutrition from the soil and exchanged it with plants for compounds made using photosynthesis, such as sugar.

This way, fungi lay – quite literally – at the root of all life on land.

Fungi can be used to make furniture, packaging material and clothes

Mycelium can be grown in such a way, that it can – among other things – replace cardboard and plastic in packaging, replicate leather for making shoes for example, be used for making furniture and could even serve as a literal building block in architecture. A very sustainable resource that can function as a carbon sink.

I could go on and on about the other amazing features of fungi – such as their healing capacity for both physical and mental health issues, their bioluminescence, their ability to break down and recycle nutrients from dead matter, their colours, their hallucinogenic properties, et cetera. But I’m hungry, so I’m going to make a pasta fungi now.

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