Fungi Fascination
BBC Countryfile Magazine|November 2021
The mushrooms in our autumn woodlands are not only strange and intriguing, they and other fungi are vital to life on Earth. James Fair finds out more from biologist and author Merlin Sheldrake
By James Faire

Cycling through a woodland one Sunday evening in early June, I was brought to a shuddering halt by the sight of a large creamy coloured mushroom the size of a dinner plate that had recently sprouted from a tree stump like an alien flower. Just a week later, passing along the same track, I found that the mushroom had collapsed in on itself like a badly cooked soufflé.

Fungi are startlingly different from other life forms on Earth – something that Merlin Sheldrake noticed early in life. His childhood curiosity was piqued by these bizarre, largely invisible organisms that seemed to have so muchpower to transform one thing into another. “They appear very fast, and then they vanish again,” he says. “There’s a mystery to them – where do they come from, where are they going?”

Merlin is now a biologist specialising in fungi, and his book Entangled Life, published last year, brilliantly explains this and other astonishing properties of fungi – and their astounding importance to other life forms on our planet. Merlin’s highly readable book became an unlikely bestseller, perhaps because the realm of fungi receives such little attention and is so widely misunderstood, yet is so remarkably fascinating. Lets explore some basics. Mushrooms are merely the fruiting bodies of fungi, like apples are to an apple tree. However, most fungi don’t produce mushrooms to reproduce; the vast majority simply release spores into their environment to create the next generation.

Fungi form their own biological kingdom – they are neither plants nor animals, though in evolutionary terms they are probably closer to animals. It’s a vast taxonomic group, with an estimated 2.2 to 3.8 million different species, of which only 8% have been described. Fungi are everywhere. Yeast is a fungus. So is Tinea pedis – athlete’s foot. Unlike plants, fungi cannot make their own food through photosynthesis, so they have to eat. With so many millions of different species, they have a range of ways of doing this, but they are perhaps best known for breaking down dead things. They make things rot, in other words. “Decomposition seemed miraculous to me,” says Merlin. “And still does, actually.”

Many fungi don’t have to break down dead plant or tree material to eat. “There are so many ways to be a fungus,” Merlin explains. “There are specialist moulds that thrive on fumes that evaporate from whisky barrels, and there’s a kerosene fungus that lives inthe fuel tanks of aircraft. They have many different appetites and proclivities.”

INTELLIGENT LIFE?

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