The surprising world of mushrooms

By Kayleen Devlin

Five amazing facts about mushrooms you may not have known.

Throughout history mushrooms have served many purposes, from benefiting diets, to being used as medicine. In this podcast episode, we dig deeper in to their uses with Long Litt Woon from Norway, who shares her experience about how they helped her overcome her grief. An inspiring journey of mushrooming and mourning.

Whilst there’s still so much more for science to discover about the fascinating members of the fungi family we do know the following facts about one of the kingdom’s most recognisable members: the mushroom.

Listen here to learn more about the restorative power of fungi, and for more awe-inspiring stories about the natural world.

Animals (including humans) are more closely related to mushrooms than plants.

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Mushooms growing on a tree
It’s estimated that fungi split from animals approximately 1.5 billion years ago. © Baac3nes | Getty

Mushrooms are part of the fungi family, which is an entire kingdom of its own, separate from plants. The fungi kingdom consists of mushrooms, lichen, yeast, plant rusts, moulds, and smut. Mushrooms are the fruit body of fungi, living a short life-span to produce spores so that the fungus can spread.

According to scientists, fungi cells are surprisingly similar to human cells. It’s estimated that fungi split from animals about 1.538 billion years ago - 9 million years later than plants did. And unlike plants, which can photosynthesise, animals and fungi are both reliant on external food sources for energy.

Fungi also contain a substance called chitin in their cell walls, which also occurs in the external skeletons of insects, spiders and other arthropods.

mycelium growing on tree stump
Mycelial networks allow plants and fungi to not only exchange goods between each other, but also help different plants in the forest to communicate. © Richard Tullis | EyeEm | Getty

Mushrooms are one small part of a network that allows trees to communicate

Underneath an individual mushroom is a vast network that can spread for acres. It consists of thin threads known as mycelium which connect different plants in a forest.

They have a mutually beneficial relationship with fungi, as plants provide fungi with carbon-rich sugars, and in return fungi provide plants with nutrients taken from the soil.

These mycelial networks allow plants and fungi to not only exchange goods between each other, but also help different plants in the forest to communicate. Older and larger trees use the network to nurture seedlings by transferring carbon to them and helping them survive.

But it’s not all altruistic: the network can also be used by trees to sabotage their neighbours by “stealing”’ carbon, or releasing harmful chemicals to their rivals.

Ghost mushrooms glow in the dark
Ghost mushrooms (Omphalotus nidiformis) are just one of species of fungi with bioluminescent properties. © Petar Belobrajdic | Getty

Some mushrooms glow in the dark

About 80 fungal species are known to be bioluminescent. Scientists studying two of these mushroom species - the Neonothopanus gardneri in Brazil and the Neonothopanus nambi in southern Vietnam - discovered that the mushrooms contained a compound called luciferin and the oxidative enzyme, luciferase. When these two mix with oxygen, it triggers a chemical reaction that emits light.

A number of mushrooms laid out on a table.
Mushrooms have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. © Souldivina | Getty

Mushrooms have been used as medicine for thousands of years, and we’re still discovering potential benefits now

Around 4500 BCE, the Greek physician Hippocrates classified the Amadou mushroom as a potent anti-inflammatory. And the first peoples of North America used – and still use - puffball mushrooms to heal their wounds.

Whilst there is little scientific evidence to support the medicinal benefits of mushrooms, they’ve featured in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.

There are lots of different types of mushrooms, including edible ones – obviously – as well as hallucinogenic and poisonous ones. It’s estimated that poisonous mushrooms cause more than 100 deaths per year globally, with thousands in need of medical assistance.

Meanwhile, of the estimated 10,000 species of mushroom, 216 species of fungi are thought to be hallucinogenic, and there has been much talk about how ‘magic mushrooms’ may be an effective treatment for certain mental health issues.

Magic mushrooms naturally contain a psychoactive compound called psilocybin. In a trial by researchers at Imperial College London on patients with treatment-resistant depression, patient-reported benefits apparently lasted up to five weeks after treatment.

Researchers believe the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms may be effective by resetting the “circuits” in the brain that are thought to play a role in depression.

However, much more research and testing is needed to establish the longer term effects and efficacy of using magic mushrooms as a treatment for conditions such as severe depression.

Fungal mold on a agar plate.
Aspergillus tubingensis which looks similar to this, secretes enzymes that help to degrade plastic. © David Hannah | Getty

They could help break down plastic waste

Plastic generally takes years to degrade, but a fungus called Aspergillus tubingensis could break down plastic in just a few weeks.

The fungus was first discovered in 2017 growing in a landfill in Pakistan. Researchers from Quaid-i-Azam University found that it could break down polyurethane, which can be found in materials such as synthetic leather.

According to the researchers, the fungus secretes enzymes that help degrade the plastic, and in return they absorb organic matter back into their cells.

Featured image © Nastco | Getty