Interview with a fungus

“The modern history of the fungi, which I date from about 400m years ago, has been a remarkable success story. The fungi occupy two vital niches in nature whose importance has never been challenged. In one niche, we are drivers of the carbon cycle, elite teams of detritivores whose mission is to digest organic matter and return the component parts to the ecological system. Without our work, life on earth would long since have ground to a halt for lack of raw materials. In another niche, we act in partnership with the roots of plants to extend their reach into the soil environment and enhance their uptake of water and nutrients. These partnerships are called mycorrhizas — myco for the fungus, rhiza for the root. Animals in turn feed on plants and benefit from this arrangement. So the fungi play two very distinct roles worldwide, and both roles are critical to maintaining the biosphere in good working order.’
‘Where does mankind come into your history?’
‘Mankind comes into our history about 20,000 years ago, at the time they discovered the uses of alcoholic fermentation. We credit the genus Saccharomyces with this development. Ancestral spores of that yeast settled in a pot of gruel prepared by a group of hominids whose existence up to that point was best described as nasty, brutish and short. This began what we call the honeymoon period in the relationship of man and fungus. Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn’t last very long.'”

Read the complete essay, “Interview with a Fungus,” by Diane Brooks Pleninger, here. This was the winner of 2003 writing contest, with the theme, “Do We Need Nature?” sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell and The Economist. A good read.

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