Kenyon Krittersish: The Fungus Amongus
Warning: The following is semi-educational, and as always there are puns. Prepare yourself for the dirty jokes.
G’day opposable thumbed chums,
It’s the early bird cheeping at you again from down the hill at the BFEC, and quite frankly I’m exhausted. My humor is weaker than my Bananagrams game when I have two q’s and no u’s, it’s qestionabqle at best (the second q is silent, shh.) I’m spent, washed-up, done-in, overall just so so ready for Thanksgiving when I can curl up on the couch, cram my cheeks with homemade mashed potatoes and procrastinate on all the final papers I should be writing.
I think we’re all feeling sick and tired and ready for a fresh start. Wouldn’t you like to start over? I know I would, and I think the whole planet would too (thanks life, and the electoral college, and the whole friggin’ universe.) While it may be too late for us hapless homo sapiens, luckily the Earth always gets by with a little help from our good friends, the fungi!
What exactly are fungi- animal, vegetable, mineral? Actually, the answer is none of the above, but they don’t like to put a label on it. Up until around 1970, fungi were lumped in with plants because they lacked motility- kind of like me after 10 pm- but through the miracles of genetic analysis we now know that they exist in a kingdom unique unto themselves: the Kingdom of Fungi. Unlike their green leafy faux-counterparts, fungi are heterotrophs, meaning they get their energy from eating other things and not from synthesizing it from carbon dioxide and sunshine like a wizard. The word fungus, singular for fungi, is a derivative of the Greek word sphongos, and these terrestrial recyclers do have strikingly similarities to squishy marine filter-feeders.
Fungal cell walls are composed of fibrous chitin, the very same material used in the exoskeletons of arthropods and lots of other creepy crawlies. Some fungi, like molds and yeasts, are content as single-celled slimes, but many others branch out into beautiful squishy structures with both above-ground and sub-terrestrial elements. The parts we see and sometimes refer to as the mushroom for reasons that escape me, are the saucy sporophores, essentially the fungal naughty bits. The bulk of the organism consists of their hyphae, cells strung together in long tendrils that create the mycellium, a branching root structure which in some, like the humongous honey fungus which also happens to be the largest organism, not fungus, but actual living thing on the planet, can extend for 2.5 square miles to soak up the choicest nutrients. Talk about expanding your horizons. Everywhere you step, even if you don’t see any toadstools poking through, you can bet you’re trampling on top of millions of mycellia.
The fungi we Kenyonites know and love are detritovores, meaning they eat the leftovers of the ecosystem. Fungi are some of the only organisms that can break down lignin, a key component of wood inter-layering with cellulose, the main sustenance of detritovores everywhere. Humans can’t digest pure cellulose, hence why I don’t recommend stuffing papers in your mouth no matter how much you’re going stir-crazy staring at those exam study guides. Dead leaves and rotting logs are all part of a balanced fungal breakfast. Without fungi, we literally wouldn’t be able to move because the ground would be covered in huge piles of dead logs and leaves and nothing would ever be clean again. Thanks fungi!
When a fungus finds some food, it secretes digestive exoenzymes from the tips of its hyphae into the environment, which break down the food bits into easily absorbable particles. It’s sort of like if humans ate by vomiting hydrochloric acid onto their food and then sucking it back up once -OK nevermind it’s nothing like that sorry for the nightmares.
But really, fungal digestion is a beautiful thing because it reverts the organic material in leaf litter, wood, and dead organisms back to its humblest form, soil, and soil is amazing, ya dig? For instance, soil helps plants grow with its abundance of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and other essential elements, it keeps groundwater percolating into the underground aquifers, it provides shelter and food for animals, anchoring support for plants and fungi, it’s super fun to smear all over your face, the list goes on and on.
In winter, one of our most prevalent fungal friends are lichen, which is actually a combination of fungi and cyanobacteria living in symbiosis. They’re not even in the same kingdom and they still get along, so we really have no excuse. In this mutual loving relationship, fungi get food produced by the photosynthesizing bacteria, and the cyanobacteria gain protection by nestling in the folds of the fungal cap that traps water and nutrients for their convenience. The partnership also allows both organisms to survive extreme conditions together, from frozen tundras to arid deserts. I’m lichen the sound of that teamwork!
This year I’m thankful for fungi, for reminding me that our world is one of constant growth and renewal even in the wake of tragedy and hardship. And, look on the bright side, if worst comes to worst and the planet devolves into nuclear war, the fungi will always be around, uncomplainingly, to pick up after our disasters and make America green and brown again, perpetuating the vaguely oblong thingy of life.
Fungi: cleaning up this mess of a world since the Proterozoic.