Fascinating fungi have endless possibilities


When fungi are mentioned, most of us think of mushrooms. But that’s just the smallest part of this little-known and much-debated organism that is hard to classify and may be impossible to live without.

Fungi have only recently captured the imagination of Western scientists. Estimates are that only 1% to 5% of the fungi in the world have been named. They’re in the news right now because many scientists think they play an important role in areas as diverse as healthcare advances and environmental cleanup and recovery.

Mushrooms and toadstools gardeners are familiar with are the fruits of fungi, comparable to apples or pears for fruit trees. The fungi itself is an organism consisting of mycelium, thread-like structures that infiltrate soil or organic matter or creep along rock. These threads produce acids and enzymes that break down the material around them. In effect, fungi are the moderators between death and life, recycling material to make it available for new generations of plants, insects and animals to grow.

The mycelium of a single fungi can cover large areas. The largest known organism on earth is a single fungi in Oregon that covers almost two-and-a-half acres — multiple miles of mycelium. The underground threads interact with plants to provide them with trace elements they can’t produce on their own, as well as with soil-borne bacteria and viruses. These interactions are what’s making researchers in several disciplines look at fungi to solve many of the modern world’s most difficult problems.

NBC Medical News reports that researchers at Johns Hopkins University and New York University are looking at various fungi that produce psychotropic substances to treat anxiety and depression in patients undergoing cancer treatment. In laboratory tests, refined “magic mushroom” extracts appear to reduce mental issues enough to allow patients’ natural healing systems to help them recover and enhance treatment results.

Other avenues of medical research are looking at fungi in old-growth forests as possible sources of new antibiotics and antiviral treatments.

In environmental experiments, fungi are being used to break down pollutants like petroleum to help mitigate oil spill damage. It’s even believed fungi can someday be coaxed into breaking down the plastic that is creating growing environmental problems.

Fungi existed long before animals, and they may actually be a precursor of all animal life. They’ve survived each of the mass extinctions in the planet’s history. The vast extent of mycelium networks has led to claims that they actually form a planet-wide awareness like the one suggested in the movie Avatar.

Whether real fungi have science fiction understanding or not, there’s a growing realization that they play a far more important role in the ecosystem than previously understood. And they may have the ability to make us healthier and keep the world cleaner. Lucky for us, they’re everywhere, so there are endless opportunities to discover their secrets.



Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login