When you hear of fungi, the first thing that probably comes to your mind is mushroom. The general misconception is “a fungus is only a mushroom.” Wrong. Very wrong. In the fungi kingdom, the mushroom might be the king and lord commander, but several other species are highly unlikely to produce a mushroom.
Mushroom in itself isn’t the entirety of a fungus. Well, that’s what people think. It’s only a part of a fungus, just like the brain is only a part of the human body and not the entire body. Human system depends on different elements to function correctly. The heart is responsible for the pumping of blood, which fuels the whole body. In the same regard, you can refer to the mushroom as the fuel of a fungus.
Mushrooms wield the ability to reproduce. They achieve this by producing spores. You can link spores to eggs, except that they do not need other components to fertilize.
I have established that a mushroom is the fruit of a fungus. What does the other part contain then? Since the fruitful part needs nutrients, what part collects these nutrients?
This is where I’ll introduce mycelium. Have you ever wandered through a forest or a bush area and come across logs of woods? Do you notice various white patches on these logs? That’s mycelium. Oh, they grow on soil tops too. Have you seen them there?
Mycelium is that verdant part of a fungus that ensures the production of mushroom. That’s not all; mycelium can produce those species of fungi that cannot reproduce too. All-efficient? Most definitely.
You can think of mycelium as the root while mushroom is the flower. We know that for a plant to germinate into something meaningful, it must start from the root. In simpler terms, mycelium is the foundation of a mushroom.
When a spore comes in contact with an underlayer in a suitable environment and condition, germination will occur. This germination marks the beginning of the existence of mycelium.
Mycelium contains the increasing stem cells found in a fungus. As heterotrophs, fungi must derive energy from things that make up their environment. Being heterotrophs means that they cannot produce their food. Therefore, they depend on other organisms to feed them.
The growth of mycelium occurs when it releases enzymes into its surroundings. Mycelium does this for the sole purpose of digesting its environment and absorbing every nutrient it can find. Each time mycelium does this, its cells veer off and continue their self-growth. This way, more mycelia spring up. There and then, an extensive mycelium network arises.
Over the years, scientists had limited their mycelium research to how the fungus grows and its cultivation process. However, more recently, these researches have evolved. New-age scientists have begun to highlight the importance of mycelium, most notably on the development of ecology.
Discoveries have shown that mushroom mycelia do not only grow to ensure the continuity of their species; they are beneficial to the entire ecosystem too.
Concerning ecology, the role of mycelia can be classified into two: ecology and carbon storage facility.
Role of Mycelium in ecology
If there’s one thing fungi are famed for, it’s their propensity to recycle nutrients. When these nutrients are recycled, they spread around, and other organisms can take advantage of them. This way, growth and development occur all around.
If the previous paragraph is confusing, picture this: a human who owns a food company walks into a community full of people and decides to contribute his quota by distributing food around the community, especially to the needy. Those who feast on the food have been handed a growth lifeline. If this practice continues for a while, no one has to starve anymore. Everyone will get something to eat. It’s precisely what mycelia does.
Even better, mycelium makes nutrients that were previously inaccessible by organisms available to them. It does this through decomposition. It refers to breaking down organic substances into even smaller sizes. Mycelium feeds on dead substances. It then makes nutrients left on these substances for every willing party to make use of. Sometimes, it doesn’t even wait for dead material. It is after their deaths that mycelium makes their nutrients available to other bodies.
Mycelium as a carbon storage facility
Mycelium exists in the root of plants. You’ll always find them there. At times, they only hang around the first layers of cells. They’re not deeply rooted (literally). Also, they can form a unit in the roots too. This unit is called vesicles.
Mycelium acts as storage for plants. When feasting on nutrients, it keeps some in readiness for emergencies when plants won’t be able to access nutrients. It then releases some of the nutrients it has stored.
Plants and mycelium form a symbiotic relationship with each other. Since the latter stores nutrients, the former supplies the latter with photosynthates like sugar and carbohydrates because mycelium cannot produce them.
Apart from the nutrients mycelium stores, it also stores carbon. Carbon aids growth and development of plants, its structure, biological health as well as physical health of plants. Therefore, plants must get an adequate supply.
However, whenever there’s a carbon drought for plants, mycelium releases the stored carbon to these plants — a win-win situation.
Mycelium’s roles in diverse industries
Away from plants and ecology, discussing mycelium isn’t complete without focusing on its roles in food, clothing, and construction industry.
Mycelium contains fibers that grow at a rapid rate. These fibers produce substances that business owners use for manufacturing packaging items and bags. That’s not all; these fibers can be turned into clothing items such as leather.
Even food makers are not left out. Mycelium fibers can be consumed as food or at least used to produce artificial meat.
The roles of mycelium are diverse. It touches almost every aspect of human life, and It deserves more attention than ever before.