The land of the fungus

by Ranjini Murali


Fungi are best friends with both life and death

Imagine the forest just after a heavy shower. Can you smell the soil after the rain? You can hear the squish-squish of the fallen leaves mixed with the soil under your feet as you plod along. The leaves are a vibrant green and the bark, a deep brown. All the colours are richer, deeper, the dirt washed away. Now look carefully, closer, under the trees, amongst the leaf litter, on the tree barks. What do you see? A little bright orange mushroom peeping from the leaf litter. A brown and white disc-like projection from the bark. A bright purple structure which looks like an underwater coral. And if you walk further along our forest path and look very carefully, you will see more of these wonderfully colourful beings. What are they? Be polite now, say hello to the members of the Kingdom Fungi.

Fungi are the great recyclers of our planet. They are best friends with both death and life. They convert dead matter like fallen leaves, dead plants and animals into simpler forms. These in turn nourish other living organisms.

There are two kinds of fungi- microfungi and macrofungi. The fungi we just saw on our walk through the forest are called macrofungi as we can see them with our eyes. On the other hand there are actually millions of fungi all around us which we cannot see. These fungi are called microfungi. The visible part of the macrofungus is the fruiting body and this is only a small portion of the whole fungus. The fruiting body helps the fungus spread its ‘seed’. The actual body of the fungus is underground. If we dig a little near a fungus, not too much as we don’t want to destroy the fruiting body, we will see white cobweb-like fuzzy growths. This is the body of the fungus and it is called mycelium . Mycelium form underground networks that go through almost all places on earth. Think of them as the earth’s web of life. They can travel up to several inches a day and channel nutrients from great distances. Some of these mycelial networks can expand into thousands of acres forming the greatest mass of any individual organism in the planet!

Fungi create fresh soil rich in important nutrients, allowing other plants and animals to grow. They can filter microbes and sediment from water providing clean ground water. They hold the soil together and aerate it making it easier for plants to go. Further, certain fungi form a strong relationship with certain plants. These fungi provide the plants with specific nutrients helping the plant grow. The mushrooms themselves are nourishment for several living beings like birds, mammals, worms, and insects. We also know that fungi are directly beneficial to humans as antibiotics can be made from them. Humans also consume several fungi species and are very nutritious.

Although fungi look more like plants, they are actually closer to animals. Kingdom fungi have between one million to two million species. Only 10 per cent of these have been identified. How many more there are to discover? And what delightful secrets are left to be uncovered? The next time you see a green fungus growing on an old piece of bread or a white mushroom on the side of the road. Stop for a minute and look at it. It could be a new species! And if you look very carefully it might just show you a beautiful secret.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 15 August 2012.

Picture: Life cycle – A fungus releasing spores
Credit: Kalyan Varma