At the bottom of almost everyone’s list are mushrooms, the Rodney Dangerfields of the biotic world. They are hated by many who see them as unsanitary hangers that must be disposed of with a deadly battery of fungicides, disinfectants and pharmaceuticals.
But eradicating fungi from the world – even if it were possible – would be like signing our own death warrant, says Keith Seifert in his book “The Hidden Mushroom Kingdom: Exploring the Microscopic World of Our Forests, Homes and Bodies.”
The retired Canadian mycologist (mushroom scientist) has written an accessible primer on a much maligned class of organisms whose life sustains ours. Without fungi, forests could not grow, agriculture would be crippled, carbon could not be recycled. Soon there would be no life.
Mushrooms, the author tells us, are the sweet ones that inherited the Earth a long time ago. There may be 10 times more species of fungi than all animals, plants and birds combined. (Nobody knows for sure, because most fungi have never been adequately studied.) Rob Dunn, an ecologist who contributed an engaging foreword, suggests that we rename our current era of the Anthropocene “the Myocene”, because “as important as our human impact may be, it pales in comparison to that of fungi.
Yet even science has come late to their study, and mycology remains a relatively underfunded backwater whose acolytes conduct their investigations in basement labs far from the gleaming halls of the most high-profile disciplines.
Like the scientists who study them, fungi thrive in even the smallest and most inhospitable niches, from the sea floor to the cracks in wooden floors. Fungal evolution diverged from other living kingdoms 1.5 billion years ago, and fungi remain among our planet’s most ingenious survivors.
The reason they are so indispensable is that mushrooms are nature’s undertakers, tasked with getting rid of the dead, returning vital nutrients to the soil and ensuring 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 finer than a human hair — in a single teaspoon of rich organic soil. Fungi inhabit 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, for example, which kills thousands of people a year due to nosocomial infections. Poisonous mushrooms (mushrooms are the fruiting bodies produced by certain fungi) contain deadly mycotoxins that discourage foragers.
For the most part, however, fungi live in harmony with the ecosystems they help keep in balance. But this balance is disturbed. With climate change, fungal tree diseases transmitted by bark beetles are destroying coniferous forests across North America. Fungal rusts and smuts proliferating in our increasingly hot and humid world are putting the world’s coffee supply at risk. Seven of the nine major crop diseases that threaten our food supply are fungal.
Despite their destructive potential, fungi have a generous talent for working cooperatively with other organisms. Their best-known symbiotic partnership is with lichen, in which the algae produce food for the fungi through photosynthesis, and the fungi assemble the algae into a composite organism whose most important ecological function is to break down rocks to create new soil.
Less well known – until recently at least – are the vast underground networks of mycelium in forests, called “the forest network,” which connect trees to each other and facilitate the transfer of nutrients and information between them.
Plants depend on fungi that live on their roots to help them better absorb nutrients, protect against pathogens, and tolerate drought. Seifert says we need to tap into those talents. Instead of seeding fields with nitrogen-based fertilizers to artificially stimulate plant growth, the author envisions a move towards “biofertilizers” – fungus-rich inoculants that will help crops extract nitrogen directly air.
Mushrooms are also grown as meat substitutes, and their mycelium fibers have been enlisted in the manufacture of biodegradable packaging and building materials. These voracious microorganisms are used to clean up oil spills and radioactive waste, and to break down plastics. Bioprospectors are looking for new varieties of fungi in nature that can help produce a new generation of pharmaceuticals and psychoactives. (The hallucinogenic LSD was made from the ergot fungus that grows on wheat.)
The author credits these humble organisms with the ability to spark a revolution in the way humans relate to nature. Technology is often seen as opposed to the natural order. But the burgeoning field of “mycotechnology” points to a future in which we learn to work with the natural world rather than against it. “Look at the mushrooms. Learn from their ways,” insists Seifert.
The book is rich in facts but lacks the kind of entertaining anecdotes and asides that might make reading easier. It also jumps from topic to topic without exploring anything in depth. These are less flaws than the nature of the task Seifert has set himself – to provide an encyclopedic survey of the field.
For the naturally curious, “The Hidden Kingdom of Mushrooms” will be a revealing introduction to a secret world that most of us know too little about.
Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist. His latest book is a collection of poetry, “What the dust does not know.”
The Hidden Mushroom Kingdom
Exploring the microscopic world in our forests, homes and bodies
Gray stone. 280 pages. $27.95