/Mushrooms and dirty diapers 

Mushrooms and dirty diapers 

By Jim Poling Sr. 

When I walk the woods these days I realize that I am seeing only a fraction what is here.
trees, the low-growing bushes and the animals all are obvious. I see
the white birches, the maples, magnificent oaks and pines, as well as
the ferns and blueberry bushes.
Sometimes a deer or a bear slips
quickly and quietly in and out of my view. The insects are not nearly as
shy and cautious. They are seen, heard, and felt.
It’s easy to think of these abundant species of the plant and animal kingdoms as our entire world. They are only a part of it.
– actually hidden from us – are many thousands of species that are an
important part of the forest. In fact, this forest would not exist
without them.
These are the 144,000 of known species of organisms
that make up nature’s third kingdom – the kingdom of fungi. Some experts
believe there may be as many as two to almost four million species of
Despite those huge numbers, fungi have not been given the same
prominence and amount of study as plants and animals. Only now are we
starting to understand the importance of fungi, and their possible help
in solving the problems of our future.
My interest in fungi was
limited to mushrooms, so prominent this month on the forest floor after
the recent rains, or the brown fungus that sometimes forms on a toenail.
Other commonly-known fungi are yeast, rust, mildew and mould.
has changed since a friend gave me a fascinating new book titled
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds and Shape Our
Futures. The author is British biologist-writer Merlin Sheldrake, a
magical moniker for a magical subject.
It is a complex book, but
fascinating and readable, with page after page packed with information
about the importance of fungi. I finished reading it with a sense that
study of the fungi kingdom has been neglected in favour of plants and
animals research.
Yet it was fungi that helped plants to begin living on land millions of years ago.
biologists believe that 90 per cent of living plants have a life-giving
relationship with fungal networks entangled in their roots.
It’s a
really cool relationship – tentacled fungi networks living deep in the
dark soil help the tree to absorb moisture and minerals. In return, the
tree collects sunlight, carbon dioxide and moisture from the open air to
produce nutrients that it shares with fungi.
But most fascinating is
the idea that fungi are not just the dumb and dirty little organisms
that cannot communicate the way animals and some plants do. Entangled
Life notes that some experts believe that fungal networks monitor large
streams of data as part of their everyday existence.
speculates that if we were somehow able to tap into those fungal data
streams we could learn more about the ecosystem, including soil quality,
water purity and pollution.
We humans believe that a brain or mind
is needed to have intelligence and cognition. Fungi do not have brains
or minds but maybe they have other ways of gaining intelligence and
knowledge and understanding – ways that we cannot see or understand.
Naturalist Charles Darwin, best known for his theory of evolution, wrote 150 years ago:
“Intelligence is based on how efficient a species becomes at doing the things they need to survive.”
Fungi certainly have found some way of staying alive and helping plants and animals – we humans included – to do likewise.
are important to humans. They help to provide us food such as
mushrooms, bread, cheese and, of course, beer. They are important in
making life-saving medicines such as penicillin, and chemicals.
fungi have powerful appetites for pollutants. Entangled Lives notes they
can consume cigarette butts, some herbicides, crude oil, some plastics
and even baby diapers.
One research project showed that a certain
fungus consumed 85 per cent of a mass of soiled diapers over two years.
During the process, the fungus produced edible oyster mushrooms that had
no trace of human disease.
Anything that can turn dirty diapers into
delicious oyster mushrooms surely offers some good possibilities for
cleaning up our increasingly polluted world.