The other life-form: how fungi helped plant life to thrive on land
Sunday 08 February 2009
Fungi came on to land from the sea because their tiny light spores were so easily blown about by the wind.
They arrived at about the same time as the earliest plants started to grow on the shores. Since then fungi have developed into a huge variety of life-forms, ranging from the smallest to the largest living things on Earth. Small fungi are just one cell. Yeast is an example, used in cooking all over the world to make bread. It grows by using a process called fermentation, which converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Most fungi live underground. They have elaborate networks of hairs, called hyphae, that gather together in clumps called mycelia. A mushroom or toadstool, which most people think of as a fungus, is simply the fruit of the mycelium which occasionally pops up above the ground to spread spores so that it can reproduce.
Fungi can have massive mycelia. In fact, the largest living thing on Earth today is a fungus. Found recently in the American state of Michigan, this hairy beast stretches underground for over 5km, and is estimated to weigh more than 10 tons. It is also one of the Earth's longest survivors, having lived for well over 1,500 years.
Fungi are the world's ecological dustmen. They process and digest dead and decaying matter, from the leaves on the ground to the dead skin in between your toes. When human dustmen take away rubbish it is often just burned or thrown into a deep pit in the ground. Nature's dustmen, the fungi, not only rot away the dead rubbish of life, but turn it into materials rich in nutrients that fertilise plants and trees to help them grow. Fungi are vital links in the Earth's ongoing cycle of renewal – of life and death.
As so often in nature, different groups of living things team up to mutual benefit. The fungus passes on some of the nutrients and water it gathers to the tree and in return the tree feeds the fungus with sugars produced by its leaves. In this way the tree's capacity for gathering water and nutrients is dramatically increased, and the fungus gets fed. Sometimes a single fungus lives underground and attaches itself to many trees – so in this way the trees are actually connected together, linked up in a chain as if poised for a medieval dance. This relationship is called mychorriza. It has been estimated that 80 per cent of all flowering plants today have some sort of mutually beneficial relationship with underground fungi.
Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart bromance continues: X-Men star gushes about 'pussy cat' BFF Patrick Stewart
David Cameron stung by jellyfish: PM hurt after ignoring advice of locals while on holiday
South Korea ferry: Vice principal rescued from sinking ship found hanged
Kim Jong-un, crowds and contraband: Inside North Korea with the the Pyongyang marathon winner
Cover up! Mother told to show less cleavage during Disneyland family trip: 'Are we supposed to wear turtlenecks our whole lives?'
The food poverty scandal that shames Britain: Nearly 1m people rely on handouts to eat – and benefit reforms may be to blame
US Navy christens huge $3 billion destroyer ship USS Zumwalt that appears as a fishing boat on enemy radar
Scottish independence: It is the English who should be on their knees, begging the Scots to vote ‘No’
Nigel Farage fatigue? Half of voters ‘immune’ to Ukip’s appeal
Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back
'Sinful': Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy comes under attack
- 1 Dylan Tombides: West Ham confirm 20-year-old striker has died after battle with cancer
- 2 'Sinful': Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy comes under attack
- 3 24 people applied for the 'world's toughest job', here are their interviews
- 4 Angus Steakhouse: How does tourist staple continue to thrive in today's gourmet market?
- 5 Cover up! Mother told to show less cleavage during Disneyland family trip: 'Are we supposed to wear turtlenecks our whole lives?'
£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...
£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...
£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...
£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...