While breaking down old tree limbs is their most visible job, fungi do far more than just decompose. They form vital associations with plants, supporting most of the green world as we know it. They’re employed at toxic waste sites to sequester heavy metals. And they even engage in biowarfare, helping to protect crops and turf. Fungi are antibacterial, anti-fungal, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory. And many are tasty and nutritious, to boot! Here’s a taste of their superpowers:
Feeding trees and plants
Only 10% of the estimated 5 million species of fungi produce mushrooms, but many more are important nutrient cyclers, turning detritus into soluble forms for living plants. Move a stick or log, and you’ll notice fuzzy, cobwebby threads stretching everywhere – that’s mycelium, a network of fungal threads that are the foundation of the food web, supporting other soil microbes like bacteria and invertebrates. The kin (called mycorrhizae) form a synergistic relationship with 95% or more of all plant species. The mycorrhizae gather nutrients from far beyond the grasp of plant roots; in turn, plants release surplus sugars from photosynthesis to support the fungal symbiotes.
Mycoremediation – using fungi to help break down environmental contaminants – is particularly effective at removing heavy metals such as copper, lead, mercury, arsenic, and nickel from contaminated soils. Mutagens and carcinogens, these metals contaminate food and water supplies, threatening the health of animals and humans, alike. Certain fungi also play a role in degrading pesticides, pharmaceutical wastes and even petroleum products.
A fungus as a pesticide? Yes! First discovered in a cinnamon tree in Honduras, Muscodor albus produces a mixture of volatile organic compounds that kill a wide range of fungal and bacterial pathogens. Early tests indicate it could replace methyl bromide fumigation as a means to control soil-borne plant diseases. You can’t see it but they’re fighting the good fight deep below your feet. That’s why it’s not recommended to treat those stray mushrooms that pop up in your lawn – applying fungicides to the lawn kills these beneficial fungi too. Consider that a single cubic inch of soil can have more than 8 miles of mycelium, a network that creates microenvironments for beneficial bacteria, flagellates and protists. Avoiding lawn chemicals protects the important balance of predators and pests that healthy soil provides.
Did you miss the Walk in the Woods online presentation in February? Watch the recording and join mycophile and Texas Master Naturalist Teri MacArthur as she shares The Weird and Wonderful World of Mushrooms.
iNaturalist Mushrooms of Texas https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/mushrooms-of-texas
North American Mycological Association has an extensive list of recommended books https://namyco.org/refbooks.php. While you are there check out their stunning photography contests.