Books

Have you ever wondered where mushrooms come from? This is the incredible secret life of fungi

A new book highlights the vital role that fungi play in our lives

illustration of red spotted fungus

Image: Aman Sagoo

Have you ever wondered where mushrooms come from? Did you know that one of the largest organisms on Earth is a fungus? Are you curious about the rich history shared between humans and fungi? You might enjoy our book, Fungi, which delves into the science and secrets behind this incredibly important kingdom of organisms.  

Fungi have an ancient past, first appearing on Earth over one billion years ago, and despite mushrooms being found in the supermarket vegetable aisle, they are actually more closely related to animals than they are to plants. In fact, fungi have memories and senses just like humans and other animals do and will change their behaviour when they find food, meet other organisms or their environment doesn’t quite suit them.

There are over five million species of fungi on Earth, but while all mushrooms are fungi, not all fungi are mushrooms! In fact, most fungi are microscopic, and can only be seen using a microscope.   

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Mushrooms are the fruits of a group of fungi called basidiomycetes. Fungal fruit bodies come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, colours and textures – even fungal spores differ in size, colour and bumps and grooves on their surface – and Fungi is filled with fascinating information and wonderful illustrations demonstrating just how much variation there is between different fungal groups.   

With cell walls made of chitin, the same tough material that makes up the hard covering of insects, fungi can survive in some of the harshest environments, and can be found everywhere from the tropics to the Arctic and Antarctic; from oceans to gardens and forests; from fruit bowls to cow pats. Some fungi can even survive in space! It was fungi that allowed plants to move onto dry land over 400 million years ago, and this partnership between fungi and plants still exists today in every garden and forest on Earth.

In fact, fungi are a vital part of every ecosystem, and without their ability to release nutrients when they break down dead plants and animals, we would have barely any soil or plant life, causing the food chain to collapse and meaning there would be no food for anyone, humans included.

But fungi do so much more for humans than meets the eye. Fungi form a key part of the human microbiome – the collection of microbes that live on and in our bodies, and how they interact with other organisms within our microbiomes influences wellbeing.

For thousands of years, fungi have been used as medicines and in traditional spiritual practices, and more recently fungal compounds form the basis of antibiotics used to treat a range of ailments, such as statins used to regulate cholesterol. Even now, scientists are working on cures for mental health conditions and diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease using fungal compounds.  

Fungi also play a huge role in our day-to-day lives. They are used to make cheese, beer, wine, bread and other shopping basket essentials and provide alternatives to meat, leather, building materials and produce natural dyes. Indeed, fungi have a long history of use by humans, and mushrooms have featured in art, folklore, music and rituals for thousands of years.

Other organisms also rely on fungi to survive, such as the red cockaded woodpecker, which relies on a fungus to soften and hollow a nest hole in the longleaf pine, and Atta ants and Termitomyces termites, who have been farming fungus gardens for millions of years.

Humans too have been cultivating edible mushrooms for hundreds of years, and Fungi explains how these mushrooms are cultivated commercially, and even how to grow your own mushrooms at home! 

However, not all of our interactions with fungi are positive, and some fungi can be destructive, dangerous or even downright deadly. In the balmy Caribbean Sea, beautiful coral reefs are left decimated by bleaching; in the caves of North America, millions of hibernating bats have succumbed to white-nose syndrome and in the tropical rainforests of South America, carpenter ants are being turned into zombies, and ultimately killed, all as a result of fungal infections.

Some fungi even attack each other, undergoing territorial battles to gain access to food and nutrients.  

Climate change has had a huge impact on fungi, and many fungi are producing fruit bodies later or earlier in the year than usual. This and humans’ global trade in plants and animals has allowed invasive species of fungi to spread to other parts of the world, wreaking havoc on plants and wildlife.

On the flip side, some fungal species are now threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, caused by climate change and human interference. Fungi explores all of these relationships and highlights the vital role that fungi play in our lives, and in sustaining our planet.

Fungi book cover

Fungi: Discover the Science and Secrets Behind the World of Mushrooms by Lynne Boddy and Ali Ashby is out now (Dorling Kindersley, £25). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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