The hidden kingdom of mushrooms
Greystone Books, $27.95
Take a walk in the forest after it rains and you can catch a glimpse of the incredible diversity of fungi. You might see the real-life version of the red and white “lit” mushroom from the video game Super Mario Bros. or the aptly named Dead Man’s Fingers, a blackened fungal growth that resembles a hand emerging from the grave. . Perhaps you’ll notice a cluster of frilly pink shelves on a log or a striking purple fungus that’s a doppelgänger for underwater coral.
But from all you can see, you’ve barely scratched the surface of the fungal world.
Scientists estimate that there are between 1.5 million and 15 million species of fungi, but so far they have discovered and named only 140,000 or more. Most of that identification was done with microscopes, but in the last two decades, DNA sequencing has allowed researchers to distinguish a large number of microfungi. It is these rarely noticed and misunderstood fungi that mycologist Keith Seifert focuses on in his book The hidden kingdom of fungi.
Seifert has spent his career “obsessed with the Latin names of fungi,” but acknowledges that taxonomy may not be easy for his readers. So he begins with a note on scientific names, explains why they are a “necessary evil” and provides an introduction to the modern classification system, likening it to “a phone book to look up the evolutionary direction of a fungus.”
From there, the book explores the evolutionary journey of fungi and the various symbiotic relationships they have with other organisms (Serial number: 02/23/15). These relationships have clouded the scientific picture of ecology and evolution. In the traditional view of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin, competition is seen as the driving force of natural selection. But Darwin “played down the importance of cooperation in nature,” Seifert writes. Drink the evolutionary success of lichens, a very diverse group that has spread throughout the world. These complex organisms consist of an algae and a fungus that live together in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Throughout the book, Seifert delves into the complicated relationships of fungi with other organisms, covering the role fungi play in forest ecology, agriculture, fermentation, the built environment, and even the human body. Here, there is something for everyone. Nature lovers will enjoy learning about the “Wood Wide Web” (Serial number: 8/9/97), an underground network of mycorrhizal fungi that connect to tree roots, allowing them to exchange water, nutrients, and minerals. Gardeners and farmers can gain actionable knowledge about fungi that can help or harm crops. Foodies will find themselves singing the praises of mushrooms after learning about the yeasts and molds that give us the “sacred mushroom trilogy” of wine, cheese and chocolate. But many readers may cringe when Seifert takes them on a room-by-room tour of the species of fungi that lurk in a person’s home or shares how fungi can cause disease (Serial Number: 11/29/21).
At the end of the book, Seifert focuses on how humans and fungi can build a better world together. Humans have already used fungi to create a range of products such as penicillin, stonewashed denim, and the meat substitute Quorn. Now the fungi are also helping with environmental cleanup and the creation of leather-like textiles and solid building materials. So far we have only put a few species of fungi to work, but the possibilities are endless. Seifert paints a picture of what a healthier, more sustainable future could look like, complete with mushroom foam beds and bioluminescent lamps. Such a future is not a distant fantasy, she writes, at least from a technological point of view. But there is more than technical knowledge to creating a more sustainable and symbiotic world.
We also need to reconsider our attitude toward mushrooms, says Seifert. “If we are going to make peace with fungi, we must be aware of their biodiversity and take advantage of their talents for biodegradation, symbiosis, and biochemistry that make them such important players in the environment,” he writes. “Only then can we work with them effectively for our own prosperity and health, while they also collaborate with us.”
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