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Protecting the Fungus Among Us

PHOTO: mushrooms

Why We Should Care about Fungi

The Chicago area is host to more than a thousand species of mushrooms and mushroomlike fungi—beneficial, symbiotic organisms, critical to the survival of our forests and grasslands. Some are edible, while others are toxic to humans. Yet, like native plants and animals, fungi are threatened by land use changes and pollution. Why should we care about fungi?

Meet a Major Multitasker

PHOTO: orange mushrooms

First, fungi are nature’s most effective recyclers and decomposers. Without them, we would be buried miles deep in dead leaves and logs. Moreover, fungi are plant pathogens. In large forests that extend miles and miles, older trees must die to make way for new trees—it is a natural part of the life cycle. Forest fungi help this regeneration to take place. Finally, many mushrooms and similar fungi form beneficial symbioses with trees such as pines and oaks. Neither can survive without the other. Trees provide energy in the form of sugars to fungi. In exchange, fungi, with huge underground networks (the above-ground portion we see is just the tip of the iceberg), carry water, vitamins, and nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen to the tree—even in drought conditions. In some cases, fungi's rootlike structures bind together like a strong cable and network several plants together so plants may share a limited water supply.

As climate change impacts available water sources, this relationship may become even more important. Mycologists (fungus scientists) have discovered only about 5 percent of the species they believe may exist, and of those, only 5 percent do most of the plant hydration work. We need to preserve them so we can find out if more “power fungi” are hiding among the yet-to-be-discovered species. If water does become scarce, it may be possible to culture these fungi to help plants survive.

What can you do to protect fungi in your own backyard?  Avoid over-tilling soil (fungal networks are generally found approximately nine inches deep). Avoid fertilizer where possible and use native plants. Fertilizer diminishes fungal diversity, while native plants host a wider diversity.

Fungal Fun Facts

  • Ever wonder why some mushrooms (e.g., truffles, chanterelles, and morels) are so expensive—as much as $100,000 per pound? It is very difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate these fungi. So, each mushroom relies on the intricate symbiotic relationship between tree and fungus, plus soil and weather conditions. And, since they are found underground, they must be sniffed out by a trained dog or pig and picked by hand.
  • Please forage for fungi in the fruits and vegetable aisle, not the forest. Aside from the fact that many mushrooms are poisonous, forest fungi are food for fauna.
  • Imagine a world without bread, wine, and pizza—all made possible because of friendly fungi.
  • Some types of fungi—penicillin, many antibiotics, and cyclosporins (infection fighters)—are used around the world to fight disease. Statins, drugs used to control blood cholesterol levels, were first isolated from fungi. Other types of fungi treat rheumatism, epilepsy, and gout; they staunch rapid blood flow, and may even battle cancer and heart disease!
  • Some fungi provide natural weed and pest control and can be used in your garden instead of chemical alternatives.
  • Fungi work in winter: since they generate their own heat, their important decomposition work continues even when the mercury dips below freezing.
  • Fungi make their own light! Some species of mushrooms are bioluminescent, emitting eerie glows all the time (though the glow can best be seen at night).