A Beginner’s Guide to Mycology
Mycology has impacted your life, I guarantee it. Whether it was that penicillin you took to get better or those cultivated mushrooms you ate for dinner yesterday, you have mycology to thank. Mycologists are scientists who dedicate their careers to all things fungi.
It may be surprising to hear that mycology is not a booming discipline. Most universities don’t offer programs in mycology and this doesn’t seem to be changing. Fungal pathogens infect over 1 billion people worldwide. They also destroy one-third of global food production! Why aren’t there more mycologists working on this stuff? On the other hand, humans benefit from many species of fungi, including those we eat and use as medicine.
How Are Mycology, Mycorrhizae, and Mycelia Different?
Mycology is the study of fungus, which is an entire kingdom of life. Mycology is to fungi as botany is to plants. Most scientists consider mycologists to be a type of microbiologist.
To date, scientists have named over 70,000 fungal species. Researchers believe there are up to 20 times that many fungus species out there. This means there could be about 1.5 million species of fungi on planet Earth. For some context, there are only about 350,000 named species of flowering plants. The fungi kingdom is massive and we know so little about it!
Mycelia is simply the vegetative part of fungi. It is a branching, often invisible substance that is home to many wonders. If you have ever seen a white, webby substance in wet woodchips or in the soil, that is mycelium. Mycelia can form vast networks of fungus. One such network is thought to be the largest organism on the planet.
Mushrooms, in contrast, are the fruiting bodies of these mycelial networks. They are the reproductive structures of fungal organisms. If we compare fungus to a peach tree, the mycelia would be the roots, wood, and leaves of the tree. The mushroom would be the flowers and peaches.
Mycorrhizae are the mycelia that grow in a symbiotic relationship with a plant host (more on this later).
The Origins of Mycology
Humans have an older relationship with fungi than with agriculture. By analyzing plaque on ancient human teeth, scientists revealed that hunter-gatherers in Europe ate mushrooms as early as 18,000 years ago. Ever since then, our species has found hundreds of uses for this kingdom of life.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, groups like the Mycological Society of America and the British Mycological Society began to organize mycologists into a broader community. More recent groups, such as the North American Mycological Association, International Mycological Association, and EUROFUNG have bolstered the mycological community. By publishing ground-breaking research in their scientific journals, these societies have aided the development of mycology around the world.
Trends in Mycology
Fungi remain understudied across the globe. There are various reasons for this. First, fungus is inherently difficult to study. Most species of fungi are impossible to grow in a lab. In nature, fungi have a short ‘fruiting’ period where mushrooms are visible. Without mushrooms, it is really hard to find mycelia.
Few universities offer classes or programs that specialize in mycology. Fungi experts were formerly housed within botany departments (which is funny, since fungi are actually more closely related to animals than plants). However, as botany departments are shrinking, they are less interested in supporting their mycologist colleagues. These department-less mycologists have a hard time fending for themselves in university politics.
While the number of amateur mushroom hunters may have increased in the last decade, the number of people studying fungi hasn’t. Some mycologists think that the lack of coordination, cooperation, and specialization within their scientific field is to blame for the decreasing funding towards mycology at universities.
What Makes a Fungus?
All fungi share a handful of common characteristics. In taxonomy, fungi are an entire kingdom of life (although the ‘kingdoms’ are always in dispute).
At the most basic level, fungi have eukaryotic cells. This means that the cells have a nucleus. This differentiates them from prokaryotic bacteria. Fungi are also multicellular. This separates them from eukaryotic bacteria.
Animals and plants are other groups with eukaryotic cells. Fungi are different from animals because fungi can’t move. They also reproduce by spores rather than sexually. Fungi are distinct from plants because fungi can’t make their own food via photosynthesis. Instead, they absorb food from their surroundings. This process is called decomposition.
Lichens are unusual kinds of fungi. They are a symbiotic, obligate relationship between a species of algae and a species of fungi. Where do lichens fit into the tree of life? Beats me.
By far the largest order of fungi is ascomycetes, which contains the vast majority of named fungi species.
Areas of Mycology
From biotechnology to addiction therapy, mycologists cover a wide variety of topics. Fungi touch many aspects of our lives. They are in our daily food, our backyards, and our medicine. Here is a quick overview of some topics mycologists study.
I’m sure you’ve eaten lots of mushrooms if you’ve made it this far into the article. Mushroom cultivation is a booming business as more people turn to plant-based diets. However, outside of a handful of species of fungi, most edible fungi species must be wild-harvested. These species include true delicacies, like chanterelles, truffles, and morels. Mushrooms don’t only taste delicious, they are super healthy, too. A recent study determined that daily mushroom consumption is linked to a 45% decrease in cancer! Some emerging health-food trends include the arctic fungus superfood, Chaga.
Mychorrizae and the Environment
Fungi perform crucial roles in our environment. Every ecosystem needs decomposers. Decomposers are organisms that break down material. Without decomposers, logs and dead animals would never rot into the Earth. Fungi are essential decomposers in the ecology of many habitats.
Fungi also aid plant growth. With the exception of the pea family, plants can’t make their own nitrogen. Nitrogen is an absolutely critical element plants need to grow. Mycorrhizae can convert nitrogen present in our atmosphere to the kind of nitrogen useable by plants. The plants use this nitrogen and in return give the mycorrhizae energy. These symbiotic relationships increase the biodiversity and resiliency of ecosystems on our planet.
We should all be thankful for fungi because they are directly responsible for the increase in the human lifespan. The discovery of penicillin in 1928 had profound consequences on the human species. Penicillin works by distracting the enzyme in bacteria that produce cell walls. This distraction results in dead, disease-causing bacteria. Penicillin led to the antibiotic revolution. These drugs were a large part of increasing the human lifespan by nearly 30 years in places such as the U.S.
Fungi are the largest source of plant disease. These fungi cause diseases in many ways. They can enter a plant through leaves, bark, or roots. Some economically devastating fungi can destroy entire harvests of the world’s most important crops. These crops include rice, corn, cereals, bananas, tomato, cotton, and so many more. These fungi are serious business. It’s no wonder that many of the employed mycologists focus on plant pathology.
Entheogenic (a.k.a. Magic) Mushrooms
Yes, those kinds of mushrooms. Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic compound found in certain species of fungi. This group of mushrooms is found all around the world. The first evidence of human use of these mushrooms dates back 7000-9000 years ago. This evidence is based on trippy prehistoric rock art in northern Africa.
Today there is a research boom in these powerful mushrooms. There is strong, emerging evidence that psilocybin can drastically help people with addiction and depression. In a few decades, we may see a much broader acceptance of these medicinal mushrooms.
Why Aren’t There More Mycologists?
Short answer: I don’t know. It really seems like we need more people studying these species. Fungi can be wildly beneficial to humans and also incredibly destructive. Maybe they are hard to research. Maybe research into fungi just isn’t sexy enough for government or private funding. Whatever the case, it seems like an increase in people studying fungal biology would help the human species as a whole.