The earth’s secret miracle worker is not a plant or an animal: it’s fungi

24th November, 2021.      //   General Interest, Health, Market Intelligence  // 

Hashtag #rickmansworth sur TwitterWithout fungi we don’t have bread, chocolate, cheese, soy sauce, beer or wine. They are also crucial to protecting our climate. Picture a dinner with family or friends that began by enjoying beer, wine, fruit juice or maybe a fizzy kombucha beverage. You’re contemplating a glorious basket of bread, rapt in awe of its perfect crumb and fantasizing about the moment you slather it in butter or olive oil. Then come the fresh vegetables sauteed with soy sauce, maybe tofu or free-range beef with potatoes or rice, followed by cheese, or a chocolate dessert – and to top it off, a lovely cup of coffee or tea with some chocolates or maybe some sake? We need to stop for a moment and thank fungi for all of this. Honestly, none of it would be possible without them, and your dinner would certainly not be so tasty!

Fungi are responsible for almost all our food production, and most of our processed materials. They are also to be thanked for many of the important medical breakthroughs in human history that treat both physical and mental ailments, for naturally sequestering and slowly releasing carbon, for optimizing industrial processes, and so much more.

When most people think about fungi, they tend to associate them with decay. Many people mistakenly believe fungi are plants. However, fungi are neither plants nor animals but rather organisms that form their own kingdom of life. The way they feed themselves is different from other organisms: they do not photosynthesize like plants and neither do they ingest their food like animals. Fungi actually live inside their food and secrete enzymes to dissolve nutrients they then absorb.

Included in this kingdom are yeasts, moulds, mushrooms, wood-ears or conks, and several other different types of unicellular and multicellular organisms that live in marine, freshwater, desert and both young and old ecosystems on Earth. Basically, a morel and a chanterelle are as closely related as a flea and an elephant. The latter are both animals, the former are fungi. Interestingly, fungi are more closely related to us animals than to plants, sharing a common ancestor in the form of an opisthokont, which is a cell with a posterior flagellum – like human spermatozoids. We know only 10% of species diversity within kingdom fungi, at most. ‘We know only 10% of species diversity within kingdom fungi, at most.’ Now to the central question: what would happen in a world without fungi? Most plants can’t live outside water and rely on fungi to survive. There would be no forests for you to hike in or any agriculture to feed you. Herbivores such as cows can’t break down grass without the fungi in their gut. Fermentation is possible only because of yeasts, which, going back to our dinner table, means that no fungi would mean no bread, no chocolate, no soy sauce, no beer or wine.

Hence our gratitude for fungi Moreover, without moulds like koji many ancient civilizations could not have preserved food, other than using salt or smoking (imagine that for a second). For decades we have extracted enzymes from fungi to clean clothes in cold water (yes, it’s fungi that do that in your detergent), have bioengineered natural pesticides with entomopathogenic fungi that eliminate the toxic burden of synthetic pesticides, and have learned to use some species to maximize the amount of metal extracted from rocks in mining processes. We have also discovered the cholesterol-lowering statins in fungi, life-saving antibiotics like penicillin, the medicines that allow for organ transplants to be successful, and we are now finally accepting and legalizing medicinal compounds made by fungi to treat urgent and life-threatening mental health ailments such as PTSD and depression. As if that weren’t impressive enough, our ancestral and traditional ways of ritually reaching the celestial from the terrestrial almost all include fungi – from the ritual beverage Soma in Vedic cultures to communion with bread and wine in Roman Catholic cultures.

Fungi matter – a lot. Nevertheless, the entire kingdom is ignored in most biodiversity, climate change and environmental legal frameworks. And by the general public too: for too long macroscopic diversity and species on earth have been referred to using the now obsolete term flora & fauna, or just plants and animals instead of fauna, flora & funga, or animals, fungi and plants. The third “f”, representing fungi, is acknowledged as the correct term to refer to the diversity of fungi of a given place. The IUCN species survival commission and the global NGO Re:Wild – among others – have adopted this terminology. It seems the time has finally come to leave mycological illiteracy behind. Decomposition, or decay, is the very beginning of a fundamental natural process that enables life. There is no regeneration without degeneration of organic compounds, because energy is not lost, it is transformed.

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