Fungal mycorrhizae: ecosystem modulators

A nice article from Nature magazine shares some interesting research on the mycelia of mushrooms (the main growing part, usually underground, which produce the spore-bearing fruiting bodies we harvest and eat). We've known for a long time that mycelia are everywhere, almost saturating soil and contributing to the ecological balance of forest and field alike. We've even studied how some plants, like orchids for example, engage in a delicate balance with the root-like tendrils of fungal mycelia (known as mycorrhizae), benefiting in both nourishment and protection. Recent research has focused on how the web of fungal roots in the soil of the forest acts as a literal 'network', sharing and balancing resources between itself and different species of green plants. It seems quite likely, in fact, that many plants could not exist without their fungal symbiotes: but the story goes deeper than that.
Mushroom mycelia can take nutrients, especially sugars, from the roots of strong, green plants (like established trees) and "feed" them to weaker understory herbs and seedlings who have less access to light for photosynthesis. A neat example: in the spring, mycorrhizae shunt nutrients from the early trout lily to feed new maple seedlings, while the reverse occurs in the fall. Inter-species nutrient balance is maintained by these fungal networks!
This research continues to increase my respect for the Kingdom Fungi, and I am beginning to suspect that these organisms are the great modulators and networkers of the living world. It is no wonder to me that they are so effective in modulating the function of human physiologies as well, helping to balance immunity and inflammation so effectively. Hopefully more research on this subject will be forthcoming -- it is a field we know woefully little about.
In the meanwhile, Paul Stamets is the man.

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