A panel of fungus enthusiasts gathered Friday at 11:30AM in Hilton 209-211 to discuss our mushroomy friends and what they can do for us—and against us. The panel included a science writer and several educators as well as a dentist, though none of them could answer the very first question: What is a fungus?
It’s not because of a lack of knowledge on the panelists’ part; it’s just that it’s easier to define a fungus by what it isn’t. It’s not an animal and it is definitely not a plant, but we can still see it. Broadly, it is an organism with one or more complex cells. And like all life, fungi like making exceptions. One panelist quipped that fungi are “the platypi of the microbial world.”
When it comes to fungi, the mushrooms that we eat are the private parts (aka, “the fruiting bodies”) of the fungus. But when it comes fungi reproduction, they can “do it” in all sorts of ways. Or not do it at all, reproducing asexually. According to one panelist, the DNA of fungi “gets stupid confusing.” Some fungi have double DNA strands, some have single DNA, and they are called different things but are really the same. There is a type of reproduction among fungi called “schmooing,” which was a brand-new word for this author. Certain types of microbial organisms, such as yeast, have protrusions in their structure that come together very slowly and “kiss.” They then fuse together, creating an organism with a new structure that has two different kinds of DNA.
Fungus has a lot of benefits to the environment in which they live. Some fungi living inside of plants give that plant superpowers, like being able to resist drought and fire. They can also communicate with the plants around them, giving the plants nutrients in exchange for others, creating a symbiotic relationship. And for us, fungus provide a lot of flavoring in foods. There is also a lot of research being done into medical fungi as a way to fight antibiotic resistance. However, on the other side of things, it can be hard to find effective antifungals because fungi are similar biologically to humans. It is hard to find products that target the fungus without harming the person.
There are also a lot of horrifying things to learn when it comes to fungus. The graphic novel The Last of Us features a zombie outbreak started by a mutated cordyceps infection. The panelists attempted to reassure us that cordyceps infection in humans is unlikely, but that if it could happen, the infection would do everything it can to remain low-key. One panelist talked about a type of fungus that takes over ants to use the body as food. The fungus will pilot an ant to a high spot above the colony. It then forces the ant to bite down, locking the jaws so it can’t let go. Then, while the ant is still alive, it begins to decompose the body until it eventually bursts open to release fruiting bodies that then rain down on the rest of the colony. However, the fungus doesn’t make the ant act any differently, because once the other ants figure out an ant is infected, the colony becomes belligerent, kills the infected ant, and throws it on the garbage pile.
One other thing humans have going for us to avoid being infected by fungi is our body temperature. Most fungi don’t do well in heat, but thanks to climate change, fungi who can better withstand higher temperatures are being selected at the same time that human average body temperatures are going down. A lot of mushrooms have very good defense mechanisms against being eaten. Unlike plants that are colorful to encourage animals to eat them and spread seeds, when fungi are colorful—like most of the rest of the natural world—they are saying “stay away from me.” One of the panelists cautioned against foraging for mushrooms unless you are really sure you know what you are doing. Many mushrooms are edible—once.
Fungi are also able to communicate with one another at a microbial level. In The Last of Us, stepping on a hyphae, or tendril of the fungus, alerts the other cordyceps of where you are and they start heading that direction. This is based on that microbial communication capability. However, there is also a way for fungi to take advantage of that communication. They can “eavesdrop” on the chemical communications between other organisms and take advantage of them.
It’s not all a horror show, though. Psychedelic mushrooms called psilocybin are being used and studied as treatments in humans for PTSD. On the other hand, some psychedelic mushrooms infect cicada so that when they emerge all they want to do is mate. Cicada mate rear end to rear end, spreading the infection. They mate so much that their butts literally fall off.
To lighten things up, the moderator did pivot toward the end to ask the panel what their favorite mushrooms are. As food, the panelists mentioned maitake (good in pasta), portobella, and morel mushrooms. Of course, baker’s and brewer’s yeast got several shout-outs, including a yeast with the exciting name of LV118 that apparently gives mead a bubbly mouth feel. There’s also a wild yeast called YH136 that is used for brewing “wild beer” and gives beer a tropical fruit flavor.
Who knew there was so much to know, and so much left to discover, about fungi? According to the panelists, what is going on underground with fungi is still a big mystery. There is more than enough material in this subject for many panels to come.