Writing your first substantial post for a new blog is a challenge: you find yourself asking questions like “Where do I begin?” and, more importantly, “How do I begin?” I’ve spent no small amount of time pondering these questions. Originally, I had planned to write some heady piece about one of my favorite philosophers and his influence on modern taxonomy; this was quickly thrown to the wayside.
I couldn’t force myself to write something without having first developed a space for the kind of conversation I wanted to have. And, there is where I found my inspiration for this post: “I will create the foundation on which I wish to build some great monument to Mycology; I will inspire the masses to study mushrooms, molds, lichen, yeasts, rusts, mildews, smuts and fungi which refuse to be classified.” Now, begins that challenge.
“It was a common belief, before Micheli’s work, that fungi and molds developed by spontaneous generation, i.e; appearing from nothing.”
Surprisingly, the modern concept of “fungi,” as a distinct group of organisms separate from plant-life, didn’t exist until the mid-20th century when Robert Whittaker developed the 5-Kingdom classification system. The English word fungus first appeared in the 16th century as a loan word from Latin, while the Latin fungus was likely derived from the Greek σφογγος (Eng: “sphongos”) meaning “sponge.” Fungal spores were observed for the first time by an Italian polyhistor, Giambattista della Porta, in 1588, but it wasn’t until 1729 that an Italian botanist, Pier Antonio Micheli, would discover that fungal spores could be germinated under the right conditions and grow into the same species of fungi they originated from.
His work, Nova plantarum genera (Eng: “New Plant Genera”), was met with much skepticism from his fellow botanists: it was common belief, before Micheli’s work, that fungi and molds developed by spontaneous generation, i.e. “appearing from nothing.” This new idea paved the way for the development of the modern mycological tradition, lead by individuals like Christian Hendrik Persoon and Elias Magnus Frie.
However, aside from the academic study of mushrooms, humans have had an intimate relationship with fungi since deep into pre-history. The kingdoms, Fungi and Animalia, share a common ancestor, called the Opisthokonts who diverged from one another, roughly 1.2 – 1.5 billion years ago, because proto-Fungi learned how to digest their food externally, while proto-Animalia learned to digest their food internally. More recently, Ötzi the Iceman, who lived and died about 3500 years ago, was found with two species of mushroom, identified today as Fomes fomentarius and Piptoporus betulinus, indicating a complex interrelation between early Homo sapiens and fungi.
“Mushrooms, despite the dearth of information, have played important roles in the development of human consciousness, gastronomy, pharmacology, economy and ecology.”
Early humans recognized the medicinal, practical, and nutritive elements of fungi: one could start a start a fire with the pileus of one, heal a wound with the hymenium of another, and eat pretty much all the rest. Egyptians forbade the consumption of mushrooms by anyone other than the priest-scholar classes, the aristocratic classes, and the royal family. African and American tribes revered the mushroom and associated them with thunder or spring-flower deities, like Shango and Xochipili, who would bring the rains and call the mushrooms to burst forth into existence.
Cultures in Europe foraged for and prized fungi found growing underground in their orchards: these are now known as “truffles,” found in the genus Tuber. Asian physicians, in modern-day India and China, compiled massive tombs which listed the medicinal uses of most every mushroom found in their local environment. Mushrooms, despite the dearth of information, have played important roles in the development of human consciousness, gastronomy, pharmacology, economy and ecology.
But, while all of this back story is interesting, it doesn’t answer the question I posed to myself when I started to write: “Why do I want people to study mushrooms?” Currently, mycologist believe there are about 1.5 million fungi and, with speciation occurring every day, this number may grow to be — or it may already be — 5 million; only 5% of these species are currently named. Let me reiterate this point: of the 1.5 – 5 million fungi suspected to be found on this planet, only ~75,000 species of fungi have been formally described and named; and, this is the most egotistical reason to study fungi. If you discover a new species and describe it and publish it in a peer reviewed journal, you can name that species whatever you like, and, assuming you truly found a new species, this name would persist until the end of human history or until the extinction of that species, or beyond….
If having your work appear in text books doesn’t interest you, I would like to point you to the myriad uses with which fungi present us. The antibiotic, Penicillin, discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist, Alexander Fleming, has changed the face of medicine; this drug, isolated from a species of mold, Penicillium notatum, was able to treat previously untreatable disease, like syphilis, meningitis, septicemia, and gonorrhea. Today, there’s even some evidence which might indicate that psilocin-containing mushrooms are capable of treating treatment-resistant depression — this could soon supersede the current most effective treatment: electro-convulsive therapy. Some fungi, like Panaeolus foenisecii, contain 5-htp which is useful in elevating moods. Mycologist, Peter McCoy, is current exploring ways to use fungi to decompose littered cigarette butts. Paul Stamets is exploring ways of preventing sudden colony collapse in the honey bee market.
“It seems the more we look towards mushrooms for help solving some of our most pressing issues, the more we discover how useful mushrooms truly are.”
It seems the more we look towards mushrooms for help solving some of our most pressing issues, the more we discover how useful mushrooms truly are.
If nothing else, you ought to study mushrooms just to study mushrooms. If I haven’t convinced you to, let the mushrooms convince you. They’re everywhere: outside, in your home, in your body, in outer space; there’s no escaping fungi, so why not study them? If that means laying in your front lawn before the sun rises, combing through blades of grass, searching for your first Conocybe apala, I invite you to go out and do it. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys group activities, find your local mushroom club and make some new friends. But whatever you do, don’t fear mushrooms and don’t fear molds because you never know what they’re capable of.
Why do YOU like to study fungi? Leave a comment and let us know!