by Annamaria Talas
November 07, 2018
from CosmosMagazine Website
in your local grocery store
is a visible outpost of a largely
hidden, alien-like kingdom
that rules all life on land:
After bacteria, they are the most ancient land-based life.
According to the latest
estimate from mycologist Mary Berbee of the University of
British Columbia, they've been here for about a billion years,
predating the first land plants by at least 500 million years.
Fungi extended a helping hand,
sending their filaments into the plant's tissue to provide them with
a lifeline for water and minerals. The algae repaid the favor by
Just how this
interspecies collaboration was established has been an enduring
secret of nature.
This enabled them to
detect and work with these co-operative fungi. Ever since, nearly
every land plant has been nurtured by its symbiotic fungi.
If it weren't for fungi,
we wouldn't be here...
Each holds the DNA
blueprint for a fungus, and it can faithfully preserve that DNA for
astonishing periods of time.
Boring 2.5 km under the Pacific seabed, the bottom of the core contained 20-million-year-old sediments that carried the spores of an ancient land-based fungus.
That makes things tricky
for mycologists, as Kathie Hodge from Cornell University
found in 1994.
It was identified as C. subsessilis, a member of an insect-eating group of fungi known as Cordyceps.
The surprise came when
Hodge germinated the spores. They appeared to develop into a totally
different species, the mould
Tolypocladium. In fact, what Hodge
discovered is that mouldy Tolypocladium is the asexual form of
insect devouring C. subsessilis.
The third mode of
The body of the fungus is a vast filamentous network of hyphae hidden below ground or inside the body of the plant or animal it is feasting on. Biologists traditionally divide life into single-cell or multicellular organisms.
Mark Fricker, a biologist at Oxford University, says this network represents,
Like a brain, these networks are adaptive.
They respond to the environment, allowing fungi to deploy nutrients where they are most needed, explore resources, combat enemies or make urgent repairs.
They are nature's most
efficient and resilient network.
Scientists first got a
hint of this after the
Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in
melanin might be protecting the fungi against gamma radiation much
as it protects us from UV rays.
In the lab, gamma rays spurred the growth of a species called Cryptococcus neoformans.
But only if its
melanin-producing gene was intact.