Mushrooms: The Wood Wide Web
You’re closer to that shiitake in your pasta than you may think — and that relationship’s got a lot to teach you.
Mushrooms are closer to humans as a species than you probably realize — although seemingly vegetative in their habits, “animals and fungi share a common evolutionary history and […] their limb of the genealogical tree branched away from plants perhaps 1.1 billion years ago” (Natalie Anger, New York Times).
On a purely evolutionary basis, mushrooms are closer to us in their evolution than either of us are to plants.
The common ancestor of animals and fungi was a single-celled alga that most probably possessed both animal and fungal characteristics, made its way to shore, and lost its chlorophyll.
Animals and fungi first took a step away from photosynthesis and only then began developing into what we are. Scientists have found that the same material that makes up an insect’s outer carapaces — chitin — makes up fungal cell walls. Further, fungal proteins bear a closer resemblance to animal proteins than plant proteins.
The Mycorrhizal Network
When we look at fungi, we mostly just see the mushroom — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg (rather, the cap of the fungus). “Most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads known as mycelium.” These threads act as the world wide web of the underground, and so are colloquially called the wood wide web.
The mycorrhizal network is an essential piece of a healthy ecosystem; it allows for, and speeds up, interactions among a large and diverse population of plants.
Through the mycorrhizal network, plants can share nutrients and information with their neighbors, and/or even sabotage unwanted guests by spreading toxic chemicals. But more importantly than allowing for a little bit of evolutionary competition, the mycelium and the network they create stand for partnership, connection, communication, and (plant) love.
Mother plants use this network to support their kin: isotope tracing research by Suzanne Simard has proven that parent trees send more carbon below ground to seedlings they recognize as their own within network, and even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. In addition, when parent trees are injured or dying, they send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings to increase the seedlings’ resistance to future stressors.
Beyond fungi’s essential role in healing our planet supporting natural growth, they’re also essential role models for us as conscious beings.
Plants utilize fungal networks to strengthen the connection and collaboration that allows for ultimate thriving and survival; nothing exists within a vacuum in nature — a reminder that we, as humans, don’t either.
The current COVID lockdowns have turned the seemingly mundane activities like dinners and movies, and even hugs among relatives, into the good ol’ days of the past — we are missing and craving connection and communication, and perhaps recognizing how little we savored it when we had the chance. The ne solace is that we are not alone in feeling this way — every living creature needs connection and communication to survive — any plant, animal, human, and yes, any fungus.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, we have all realized the importance of connecting with others and how we can feel isolated without it — in fact, isolation is linked to decreased physiological and mental health (no, you’re not weird for feeling that way).
Just as plants’ survival and health rely on the wood wide web for connection and communication, humans’ ability to strengthen connections has proven to truly impact health — not just mental, either.
Stanford Medicine advises that stable, healthy connections lead to a 50% increased chance of longevity and strengthened immune system — while this landmark study proved that lack of connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.
With all of this data, and our current landscape of severe isolation — we have to ask ourselves, have we discounted the value of connection? We’re seeing more than ever how lack of it is harming us — and as Albert Einstein says, “look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
Plants and fungi have understood the value of connection and the detriment of isolation since the beginning of time.
What can we learn from the “internet of the earth?”
Imagine if we used our world wide web to connect as beautifully and peacefully as plants do — to foster growth, communication, and the betterment of the planet for future generations.
If we’ve learned anything from this virus, let it be the value of connection — and how it can be used to facilitate healing and growth for humanity and the environment.