About 500 million years ago, when aquatic plants slowly began to grow towards land, they could not live there alone. They enlisted fungal mycelium networks, which served as their root system for several tens of millions of years before developing their own and able to live independently. Yet about 90 percent of plants depend on symbiotic fungi.
But in that time, the planet changed: Early plants and their fungal networks helped lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 90 percent, enabling the conditions for life on Earth as we know it.
Today, human activities are causing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to soar (although not as high as during the pre-fungus period), and scientists and other fungi enthusiasts hope that fungi can help us sustain our own existence by using up all that carbon weather.
To Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and author of “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures,” that’s really just one of the amazing things fungi of all kinds do: as “ecosystem engineers.” and as the facilitators of our lives on this planet, whose central role we ignore “at our peril,” he said.
The following conversation has been edited and shortened.
There’s been such an explosion of interest in fungi lately, and I wonder how you understand that, or why you think it came about. Your book is certainly a big part of that.
I think there are a few reasons. One is that we know more about fungi than we used to – technological advancements over the past few decades have led to some really exciting discoveries and given new access to fungal life.
There is also a growing awareness of the fundamental interconnectedness of the living world – driven both by new research and by the worsening consequences of our ecocidal activities – which has led to an ecological turn in academic and popular discourse. Fungi embody the most fundamental principle of ecology: that of the relationships between organisms. Mycelium is ecological connective tissue, reminding us that all life forms, including humans, are connected in seething networks of relationships, some visible and some less so.
Fungi may have become poster organisms for ecological thinking, but interest in fungal life has also been boosted by the emergence of network science. “Network” has become a masterful concept, from computers to sociology, to neuroscience, ecology, economic systems. Fungi are ancient living networks, and the recent surge in interest in these organisms reflects our modern fascination with the extraordinary power of networks, from transportation systems to the Internet, to shape our lives and cultures.
And then there is the urgency. There are a number of ways we can work with fungi to help us adapt to life on a damaged planet, and we don’t know nearly as much as we should. The increasing ecological emergencies have led to a renewed interest in the fungal world and there are many radical mycological possibilities.
Some fungi produce potent antiviral compounds that reduce honey bee collapse disorder. In the process of mycoremediation, fungi can be employed to break down toxic pollutants. Mycofabrication uses fungi to produce sustainable materials, from bricks to leather. Not to mention the many ways fungi change the way we think, feel and imagine.
I was reading the opinion you co-wrote in The Guardian on the possibility mycorrhizal fungal networks provide for carbon and nutrient cycling and storage. How do you feel about bridging the gap between popular cultural interest in fungi and organizing for the preservation of these organisms?
Fungi are a kingdom of life that has not had the attention of a kingdom. They are neglected in conservation frameworks, educational curricula, and scientific and medical research. Part of the challenge, of course, is raising awareness of fungal life and the many vital roles they play in the biosphere.
But this is just the beginning. I’m working with an organization called the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks, which is trying to create robust maps of the planet’s fungal communities that can be used by decision makers to account for life in the soil. I work with two other organizations, Fauna Flora Funga and the Fungi Foundation, who are working to include fungi in protection frameworks, many of which currently exclude this third kingdom of macroscopic life. When we destroy fungal communities, we undermine ancient life support systems that make so much of life possible.
Even without the data, if we’re just talking about carbon sequestration in forests or grasses, mycorrhizal networks usually don’t enter the conversation. Maybe that’s the preconception that we’re primarily visual beings, that we’re looking for the thing we can see.
Despite the fact that soils are a large carbon pool, we tend to neglect subsurface ecosystems. This is partly because we don’t know much about what goes on underground and the many lives lived beyond our sight. It is difficult to study these organisms and what they do. In a recent article I was a part of, we take a closer look at these challenges. Our estimates of the carbon entering soil via mycorrhizal fungi are imperfect and should be interpreted with caution, but they provide an indication of how important mycorrhizal relationships are in mediating nutrient fluxes in global ecosystems.
When I read your book I often thought: I can’t believe I don’t know this. Fungi made life possible on Earth, and yet so much of what you wrote about was completely new to me. It got me thinking, how do we know something that we think we know?
I love studying the living world because our investigations so often make the known unknown. Fungi, like so many organisms, invite us to think in new ways about many well-used concepts that we thought we understood. There are so many pressing challenges we face today, and there are many ways we can collaborate with fungi to help us adapt to life on a damaged planet. And there is so much we don’t know.