The ability of fungi to prosper in such a variety habitats depends on their diverse metabolic abilities. Metabolism is the art of chemical transformation. Are metabolic wizards and can explore, scavenge and salvage ingeniously, their abilities rivaled only by bacteria. Using cocktails of potent enzymes and acids, fungi can break down some of most stubborn substances on planet, from lignin, wood’s toughest component, to rock; crude oil; polyurethane plastics; and the explosive TNT. Few environments are too extreme.
The ability of natural fungi, Wood wide web, Fungal Network
A species isolated from mining waste is one of the most radiation resistant organisms ever discovered and may help to clean up nuclear waste sites. The blasted nuclear reactor at Chernobyl is home to a large population of such fungi. A number of these radio-tolerant species even grow toward radioactive “hot” particles, and appear to be able to harness radiation as a source of energy, as plants use energy in sunlight.
Many of the most dramatic events on Earth have been and continue to be a result of fungal activity. Plants only made it out of the water around five hundred million years ago because of their collaboration with fungi, which served as their root systems for tens of million years until plants could evolve their own. Today, more than ninety percent of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi from the Greek words for fungus (mykes) and root (rhiza) which can link trees in shared networks sometimes referred to as “wood wide web.”
This ancient association gave rise to all recognizable life on land, the future of which depends on the continued ability of plants and fungi to form healthy relationships. Plants may have greened the planet, but if we could cast our eyes back to Devonian period, four hundred million years ago, we’d be struck by another life form: Prototaxites. These living spires were scattered across landscape. Many were taller than a two-story building.
Nothing else got anywhere close to this size: Plants existed but were no more than a meter tall, and no animal with a backbone had yet moved out of the water. Small insects made their homes in the giant trunks, chewing out rooms and corridors. This enigmatic group of organisms thought to have been enormous fungi were largest living structures on dry land for at least forty million years, twenty times longer than genus Homo has existed. To this day, new ecosystems on land are founded by fungi.
When volcanic islands are made or glaciers retreat to reveal bare rock, lichens (pronounced LY ken) a union of fungi and algae or bacteria—are the first organisms to establish themselves and to make the soil in which plants subsequently take root. In well developed ecosystems soil would be rapidly sluiced off by rain were it not for the dense mesh of fungal tissue that holds it together.
Mushrooms largest living structures
There are few pockets of the globe where fungi can’t be found; from deep sediments on the seafloor, to the surface of deserts, to frozen valleys in Antarctica, to our guts and orifices. Tens to hundreds of species can exist in the leaves and stems of a single plant.
These fungi weave themselves through the gaps between plant cells in an intimate brocade and help to defend plants against disease. No plant grown under natural conditions has been found without these fungi; they are as much a part of planthood as leaves or roots.
Mushrooms dominate popular fungal imagination
But just as the fruits of plants are one part of a much larger structure that includes branches and roots, so mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi, the place where spores are produced. Fungi use spores like plants use seeds: to disperse themselves. Mushrooms are a fungus’s way to entreat the more than fungal world, from wind to squirrel, to assist with the dispersal of spores, or to prevent it from interfering with this process.
They are the parts of fungi made visible, pungent, covetable, delicious, poisonous. However, mushrooms are only one approach among many: The overwhelming majority of fungal species release spores without producing mushrooms at all. We all live and breathe fungi, thanks to the prolific abilities of fungal fruiting bodies to disperse spores. Some species discharge spores explosively, which accelerate ten thousand times faster than a space shuttle directly after launch, reaching speeds of up to a hundred kilometers per hour some of the quickest movements achieved by any living organism.
Fungi radiation resistant spores generated by mushrooms
Other species of fungi create their own microclimates: Spores are carried upward by a current of wind generated by mushrooms as water evaporates from their gills. Fungi produce around fifty megatons of spores each year equivalent to weight of five hundred thousand whales making them the largest source of living particles in air.
Spores are found in clouds and influence the weather by triggering the formation of the water droplets that form rain and ice crystals that form snow, sleet, and hail.