Under every footstep of healthy soil lie 300 miles of mycelial threads.
Almost every plant on Earth is infused with living fungal cells throughout its tissues.
30% of the Earth’s soil-based carbon is fungal biomass, and the total number of species of fungi outweigh the total number of plant species as much as 12 to 1.
Fungi have been found in every environment, across every continent on the planet, from the depths of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, to the bitterly cold deserts of Antarctica. With species estimates ranging from 1.5 million to as many as 5.1 million, we can safely say that in the game of survival and adaptation, fungi are playing their cards right. But in this time of ecological dysregulation, when, on average, 150-200 species of plants and animals go extinct each day, how are the members of this kingdom of life faring?
Much has been said of the threat of extinction of endangered flora and fauna - valuable medicinal plants such as ginseng, as well as the iconic giant pandas, snow leopards, and blue whales that the public generally associates with wildlife conservation. Not much has been said of the third element in this triad - the funga. Simply put, the amount of attention given to this kingdom of life is disproportionate when considering that fungi are keystone species underlying every ecosystem and play vital roles in nutrient cycling, and unfortunately, they too are threatened.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been serving as an inventory for the conservation status of plants, animals, and fungi since 1964, documenting the vulnerable, the endangered, and the outright extinct in a report known as the IUCN Red List. The most recent Red List gives an interesting glimpse into how much attention has been paid to fungi.
As of 2018, there are 25,452 species of plants whose status has been officially evaluated, in addition to 68,054 species of animals, and as for fungi… a mere 56 species have been given recognition. Compare this to the total number of estimated species on Earth quoted in the first paragraph, and you will see a glaring problem.
Now, this number isn’t low because fungi are immune to ecological disruption, it is low because very little attention has been put on fungi in the first place. The good news is that much work is being done by conservationists, mycologists, and the IUCN across the world to gain a more accurate perspective. Whilst red-listing isn’t as prolific outside of Europe, many mainland European countries such as Poland, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden are mobilising their efforts to document fungal populations in earnest.
However, their findings do paint a bleak picture. Air pollution, climate change, the clear-cutting of ancient forests, and the nitrification of soils is contributing to significant declines in native species of fungi - mushrooms included. In fact, studies show that at least 10% of European macrofungi are under threat of extinction.
If the rate of deforestation, and the ill-management of tree plantations and dead wood debris is anything to go by, many more fungi will be threatened with habitat loss and starvation, and the shockwave of consequences will be felt deep in our lives too.
To illustrate why fungal conservation ought to be more prominent in our collective conversations, let’s take the example of the Lion’s Mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus), a threatened medicinal fungus here in the UK. To anyone who has ever come across this mushroom in the wild and saw this snow-white ball of filaments cascading downwards like pom-poms high up in the branches of old beech trees knows the gentle beauty, and almost alien nature of this fungus.
Considered a gourmet mushroom that tastes like lobster, its fruiting body also bestows medicinal benefits to its consumer from the neuro-regenerative compounds it contains. These compounds - known as Nerve Growth Factors - have been shown to stimulate nerve cell growth and improve cognitive impairment in humans, as well as reversing the effects of amyloid plaque formation in the brain (a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease) in animal trials. As the medical industry braces itself for a rise in Alzheimer’s cases from the baby boomer generation in the coming years, much is stirring as to how this plaque-ridden problem is going to be handled, but precious fungi such as Lion’s Mane may help bring us closer to a solution.
Bear in mind, this is only one example of an important mushroom that is slipping through the biosphere’s fingers. There are still dozens of known, and countless unknown mushrooms with medicinal properties that humans haven’t even begun to research. What fungal treasures have we lost in the last few decades? What medical, agricultural, or ecological revolutions are we letting slide into oblivion without so much as a thought or consideration of their existence? We can no longer afford to ignore the fungi.
On September 13th, 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day symposium at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and the theme of it was the State of the World’s Fungi. This was in celebration of the release of a new report - the first of its kind - on the global status of fungi, and it paints a picture of a hidden fungal world that interpenetrates daily human life.
From our evolutionary kinship to fungi, to their everyday use in the production of foods, medicines, and industrial enzymes, the quiet ubiquity of fungi is showcased brilliantly through this report, and the symposium itself was nothing short of awe-inspiring. With expert mycologists from across the globe gathering in one place to share their passion for these organisms, it became clear to me that mycology is a megascience waiting for its time to shine.
This report, and the mycological work at the Botanical Gardens represents a sea change in our view of ecology, and the roles that fungi play in weaving the circle of life. The mycophobia that has been present for so many centuries in the Western world is beginning to wane, as more and more citizens are becoming more ecologically aware and mycologically literate.
These elusive creatures are ever-present beneath our feet. They were there long before us, and in their absence, the biosphere would have quickly run out of nutrients to cycle to keep Life flowing. This new view of ecology is becoming more prominent. With this greater perspective comes a greater responsibility for us, as stewards of the land, to nurture and protect these organisms, not by isolating ourselves from wildlife but by playing integral parts in it through simple, yet positive actions that create habitats for creatures on which we rely.
Since originally posting this article on the 10th November 2018, I have enrolled on the Plant and Fungal Taxonomy, Diversity and Conservation master’s course in collaboration with Kew Gardens and Queen Mary University of London, after picking up a leaflet for it at the State of the World’s Fungi Symposium. For any budding botanists, mycologists, ecologists, and naturalists looking to create a career in what I believe to be one of the most important subjects of our time, I highly recommend you consider applying for this brilliant, challenging, and inspiring course.