Early in mankind's development, strange looking mushrooms were often thought to be plants. Lichens, molds and other fungi were looked upon with confusion or even fear. These mysterious little organisms may hold a very unique key to our future. However, before understanding what they do and how they do it, it is essential to understand WHAT a fungus is exactly. With some very unique exceptions, all mushrooms, molds and lichens are made entirely out of long lines of single cells. These strands are called hyphae and they do basically all of the work.
While it is easy to understand what this means, like when month-old bread looks so fuzzy, it might be a bit harder to understand how the common mushrooms forms. With such a simple and compact shape, in reality almost anything is possible. All the fungus needs to do is weave together a shape and after a good long rain it pumps all the hyphal tubes full of glorious water. Out of the ground pops a water-filled mushroom ready to shoot out millions of reproductive spores. Once "matching" spores happen to land near each other they start growing their own hyphae, connect, and get ready to join the undernet.Undernet
is not an actual term, but it is quite an appropriate phrase. Understanding fungi networking can be hard at first, since we rarely see anything happening at all. Sometimes you might see a mushroom for a day or two while walking, but it is soon gone and you are left wondering how it got there and where it went. The trick? It is all an illusion, everything that happens is simply under foot. When we think of what's in the dirt, we think of bugs and roots. A large component of it is, even more than all the roots of trees, plants, and grasses is the grand, infinitely complex network of mycelium. While fungi are very good at making an endless amount of chemicals, poisons, toxins, anti-fungals, and anti-bacterials, they are not very good at making any sugars. Molds and mushrooms do decompose dead or even living matter, but nothing in the world beats the fresh sugar made by a tree using sunlight. Even before herbivores, early fungi figured out how to communicate and barter with the plants.
While trees have mastered making sugar energy out of the sun's energy, the fat and simple root systems of trees are far too cumbersome to be anything other than just enough to get by. The mass network of hyphae tubes have near limitless surface area and are the perfect shape for transporting water (in addition to many things in the water). Connecting with a plant is like going to the store or the bank to the plant. You give a plant water and (seemingly) random yet essential nutrients are picked up. In exchange you get a steady supply of sugar, pure food. It doesn't even stop there! When making connections is essential for survival, you get really good at connecting. Sometimes certain species of fungi prefer a specific plant or vice versa, but it is less common for there to be exclusive connections. When a mushroom is connected to a plant, it is often connected to almost all plants in its vicinity, as well. In turn, all are connected to other mushrooms, which are connected to other plants and they are connected to other mushrooms. Fungi will sometimes connect to other fungi and trade or exchange resources.
While this networking is clearly important, fungal symbiosis is the heart of the affair. Many fungi are extremely keen on using symbiosis while not exactly doing any networking. Cordyceps fungi are like killer athletes foot for insects. While plant cells are made out of cellulose, which makes them indigestible by normal means, fungal hyphae are made out of chitin. Luckily for fungi, arthropod exoskeletons are also made out of chitin. It's easy to work with what you know, and this similarity has helped fungi get to REALLY know insects. The spores spend no time at all easily infecting a host bug, releasing "mind control" chemicals into the bug system. Once the bug basically goes crazy and dies, the fungus uses the nutrients to create its reproductive structure and hope that the bug had friends.
On the flip side of symbiosis, lichens have had a civilization figured out for ages. Each lichen is technically not a fungus anymore, it is a living combination of two completely separate organisms. Often, the outside of the lichen is the filamentous hyphae. Instead of linking to outside plants, lichens have learned the great skill of agriculture. Each lichen has a fungus on the outside and a farm packed with sugar producing algae on the inside. The fungal component protects the algae both physically and chemically, in addition to helping keep the algae hydrated. In exchange, the algae is safe to produce an endless amount of nutrients for the fungus. While algae can live on its own even on the bark of trees, the lichen fungi is helpless without its photobiont. The last step in its life cycle is reproduction and once again, they have beat mankind to the punch. Most common mushroom caps are basidocarps and release spores towards the ground with many gills. Other fungi and almost all lichens are ascocarps and launch spores up into the air.
Each lichen farm is equipped with its very own chemical warfare plant in addition to dozens of rocket launch pads.
(Note: Not all lichens produce these apothecial structures. Many lichens can reproduce either sexually or asexually and there are many different ways and structures that they use to do this. Some lichens have no known way to reproduce other than breaking off; this broken off piece can then start growing somewhere else.)
If we can better understand how to work with the symbiosis of fungi, we may be able to make a great leap not only in our technological understanding and awareness, but in our connections to each other. We may invoke symbiosis to create hyphal-neural computer systems to interact with our technology or we can create bio-synthetic integrated computer systems on newly colonized planets to link bases and outposts. In any terraforming scenario, these fungal organisms are just as essential as the plant systems that will need to be grown. While some fungi are being investigated for their possible ability to help people with PTSD, scientists are creating organic bricks of fungal 'styrofoam', building material and insulation. Recently a fungus was discovered that breaks down oils and another that breaks down plastics. Finally, uncountable secondary chemicals that are produced, such as penicillin, help us humans pave the way for a bright, fungal future.