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Tue 19 November 2019
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The fungi to be with… John Mitchinson takes a look at the wonder of mushrooms.

Mushroom sex is very progressive…

If you want a good example of our ambiguous relationship with fungus, you could start with Ernest Duchesne. 

Ernest Duchesne (Paris, 30 mai 1874 – Amélie-les-Bains, 12 april 1912) – Wikimedia Commons

In 1897, Duchesne was a young French doctor stationed at the military hospital in Lyon. He noticed the Arab stable boys were using the mould from leather harnesses as an ointment to cure their saddle sores. This lead him to test, identify and record the properties of penicillin in controlling bacterial infection, thirty years before Alexander Fleming’s ‘discovery.’

Whether it was his extreme youth (he was 23), or suspicion of its Arab origin, his report was ignored.

A third of the 2 million casualties in the First World War died from secondary infection might have been saved Duchesne’s mould cure had been taken seriously.

I suspect the real problem was that penicillin is a mould, and moulds are things we associate with death and decay not health and recovery. That’s why I like them. If this column were to have a mascot, it would be a mushroom. Fungi are everywhere, they are important, they are deeply weird and we know very little about them.

Kept in the Dark and Covered in Dung

We think – and it is only an estimate – there may as many as 5 million species of fungi on the planet but only 120,000 have been formally identified.

In 2017 alone, 2,189 new species were identified – including 37 new moulds, gathered from oil paintings, cigars and the arm rest of dentist’s chair.

Not that you need go that far to fund fungi – our bodies are full of them – 100 different species live on our feet alone. The bits we see – what we call mushrooms – are only the fruiting bodies of the organism, the tip of the fungal iceberg. The rest is the mycelium, composed of a mass of threadlike tubes called hyphae. 

A third of the 2 million casualties in the First World War died from secondary infection might have been saved Duchesne’s mould cure had been taken seriously.

A mushroom’s mycelium can be massive – one honey fungus in Oregon holds the record as the world’s largest living organism. Not only does it cover 2.4 miles, mycologists think it might be 8,000 years old.

Most civilisations don’t last that long. 

Mushroom Sex

Mushrooms’ personal habits are pleasingly upside down. They eat by secreting enzymes from their mycelium and digesting their food outside themselves before absorption. 

Morchella elata asci viewed with phase contrast microscopy – Wikimedia Commons

Mushroom sex is very progressive: they transcended the concept of gender long before us. Mushrooms have multiple ‘mating types’ and need to find another individual of a different but compatible type so their hyphae can entwine, fuse and swap genetic material. Many species have four mating types, but some have thousands.

One honey fungus in Oregon holds the record as the world’s largest living organ… mycologists think it might be 8,000 years old. Most civilisations don’t last that long. 

Fungi are strong, resilient and useful: 90% of plant species are dependent on their symbiotic relationship with fungi to survive and without them there would be no antibiotics, beer, wine, soft bread or vegan lasagne.

When it comes to sustainable alternatives we’re only just scratching the surface of fungal utility (mushroom leather is now a thing). And they’re not just friends but relatives (genetically fungi are much closer to humans than plants). 

Life may be too short to stuff a mushroom, but we should definitely pay them more attention.

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.

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